Friday, May 6, 2011

A review of "The Kitchen Daughter" [30]

The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry
Gallery, ISBN 978-1439191699
April 12, 288 pages

For anyone to lose both their parents, together in a terrible accident, would be a difficult thing. But for Ginny Selvaggio it takes on a whole additional element. While it has not let been diagnosed, given a name, at the beginning of the book, Ginny suffers from Asperger's syndrome and, for her, the simplest everyday social interactions are painfully difficult. The funeral itself, with all these people in her house, talking to her, touching her, is enough to push her into retreating to hide in the back of a closet in a state of panic.

For all of her 20+ years. her parents protected her from the world. They made it possible for her to get through school, just one class shy of graduating from college and it was her mother who introduced and encouraged her in the one thing that truly comforts her, cooking. And some comfort she will need, because not only does she have to deal with all the everyday things that she never did before, but she also has to deal with her sister Amanda, who wants to sell the family home in Philadelphia , the only home she has ever known, and have Ginny come live with her family in NJ, something Ginny strongly objects to. But is she really capable of living alone, dealing with all the things that she will have to?

So it is no surprise that Ginny retreats to the kitchen, where the routine of gathering the ingredients, studying a recipe, chopping and cutting and stirring, calms her like nothing else can. But the result of her first dish is very, very surprising. As she painstaking followers her grandmother Nonna's handwritten recipe for ribollita, as the wonderful scent fills the room, she receives an unexpected visitor, her long dead grandmother, sitting on a stool, giving her advice. As as Ginny soon discovers, Nonna is not the only person she can make appear with her cooking. Each visitor bring some new knowledge, some new understanding, but it is a gift that she can use to help her cope with what the future, and some unexpected discoveries about the past, will bring?

At the heart of this book is the question of what is normal and the suggestion is that the definition should be a lot wider than we think. Ginny keeps a 'Normal Book' with cutting she has taken from all sorts of publications, that give different ideas of what is normal.
"There are so many flavors of normal, it doesn't matter which one I am. That's what the Normal Book tells me. There really is no normal. After all the upheaval of the last week, after the funeral and the ghosts and my unreasonable sister and everything, it's worth reminding myself. As strange as my life gets, it's just my life. I'm still in it. Whatever happens, I'm going to have to find a way to get by."
I loved this book. Totally loved it.
The concerns Ginny faces with friendship and family are universal. True, most of us do not suffer with the degree of discomfort that Ginny does, but many of us, myself included, suffer from shyness that make many social interactions uncomfortable and we can certainly identify with her. Because Ginny, while dealing with all these problems, is also a very intelligent and even insightful person, an articulate observer. It is wonderful watching her discover that she has something to offer others, her friendship, her extraordinary cooking skills, her insights as a sister and an aunt, helping her niece who appears may be dealing with similar problems.  Her strength in working to deal with her problem, to overcome it at least to a degree that will let her live her life with a degree of independence, is engaging and endearing. At times the story is very funny, at other heartbreakingly sad, and always interesting.

And then there is the food. Each chapter opens with a copy of a handwritten recipe from Ginny and her mom's collection, and many sound good enough that I can see myself trying them out in the future. I like food, as do many of us, and the theme of food and it's place in our lives winds in and out throughout the book, tying it all together. The place of beloved recipes, their power to make present again those long gone, the calming routine of cooking, the wonderful smells and textures and tastes created...they are all here and all very real.
Which raises the question of the ghosts. Some people, it seems, from things I read about this book before I actually read it, have a problem with the ghosts, but I can't say that I did at all. You can think that they are real, you can think that they are a creating of Ginny's imagination to help her to cope, but either way, I think they add nothing but a positive element to the story. Sometimes scary, sometimes a comforting presence but always a great addition to the story.

A wonderful debut effort from the author, a totally enjoyable book, and I certainly hope we will see more books from Ms. McHenry in the near future.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book


  1. I'm reading this book now and enjoying it!

  2. Sounds like an interesting book -- thanks for sharing it with us. Have you read I Lived, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti? It's a memoir that also includes recipes. The use of recipes in books, both fiction and non, seems to be quite popular in recent years.

  3. I simply adore books like this. Very nice review.

  4. I am totally intrigued by this book. Personally I have no problem with ghosts, as long as it isn't too hokey. And it sounds like it does nothing but make the story more poignant. And the cooking. What is not to love here. Lovely review.

  5. No Beth, I have not read that book...will have to check it out!

    I am always suspicious of all the dog and animal books out at the moment. You get a hit and everyone is copying it. But I did not get that idea AT ALL with this book.

  6. I loved this book too - it will probably be one of my favorites of the year.

  7. I must read this book. I keep seeing great reviews for it. I love that each chapter begins with a handwritten recipe. Great review!

  8. Wow! What a rousing review and it seems so different from your murder mysteries. I'll have to check it out.

  9. I love foodie books and ghostly tales so this one's right up my alley. Definitely going on my list. Great review!


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