The Kitchen Daughterby Jael McHenry
Release date: 2011 / 272 pages
Synopsis (from the jacket cover): After the unexpected death of her parents, shy and sheltered Ginny Selvaggio, a young woman with Asperger’s syndrome, seeks comfort in the kitchen, away from her well-meaning but interfering relatives and her domineering sister, Amanda. The methodical chopping, slicing, and stirring soothe her anxiety, and the rich aroma of ribollita, painstakingly recreated from her Italian grandmother’s handwritten recipe, calms her senses. But it also draws an unexpected visitor: the ghost of Nonna herself, bearing a cryptic warning in rough English, “Do no let her,” before vanishing like steam from a cooling dish.
First Sentence: Bad things come in threes.
Review: Lately I’ve enjoyed most of what TLC has sent me to review, but The Kitchen Daughter is truly exceptional and one of my favorite novels so far this year.
The premise is compelling – a woman with undiagnosed Asberger’s is trying to come to terms with the death of both parents, while planning her own, newly independent future and forging a mature relationship with her sister. The narration is told entirely from the perspective of the protagonist, so she seems entirely credible (and extremely likeable). However, Ginny’s fascination with what constitutes “normal,” Amanda’s anxieties about Ginny’s ability to live independently, and Ginny’s ability to see ghosts lend a complexity to the narration that is fascinating to experience. Despite seeing ghosts – invoked only when Ginny uses the person’s recipe and lasting only the duration of the smell of the dish – her voice is deeply plausible and authentically resonates with the many autistic students I had in my classroom. Viewing the world through Ginny’s eyes is a journey through the power of perception, community, independence, and identity.
But beyond the compelling premise and masterful narration, McHenry’s prose is lush, visceral, and generous – which reflects Ginny’s world and passions, even when the world sees her from a distance. Ginny has a gift with cooking and views people and experiences through metaphors of food and recipes. For example, soon after her parents’ funeral, Ginny describes her experience of needing to escape her fellow mourners:
“I push past Connie, I can feel bone under the flesh of her shoulder like the shank end of a ham, and I nearly trip on the step down into the next room and everyone is there, not just shoes but knees and elbows and torsos and open mouths. I have to get out, but they’re all in my way. I shove through. I feel oven-hot skin, clammy fish-flesh skin, damp chicken-liver skin, they’re all around me. My heart beats faster, the chant matching, get/out/get/out/get.”
When anxious, Ginny imagines cooking various dishes to calm herself:
“The onions, I need the idea of the onions, I soothe myself with it. Slowly growing golden. Giving off that scent, the last of the raw bite mixed with the hint of the sweetness to come. I press my forehead down against my knees, crushing the boots between my chest and thighs. My forehead is hot. My knees are hot. Thin, long strands shaved on a mandolin start as solid half-moons and melt away over time. More salt? No, just patience. Stir. Wait. Adjust the heat. Wait. Stir.”
When her sister recommends that Ginny get screened for Asberger’s, she contemplates Amanda’s choice of words through the metaphor of cooking:
“’Screened’ makes me think of food getting rubbed through a screen. It’s a French technique. Soups get screened, and sauces. Forced through a tamis or chinois. Everything that comes out is smooth and all the rough parts get left behind, thrown away. I don’t want to be screened.”
Ginny describes the voices of people in her life viscerally as well. Her sister: “She has a voice like orange juice, sweet but sharp.” Her friend: “His voice is muddy, that’s what it is. Dark and brown and muddy. A note to it like coffee left too long on the burner. And unsweetened, bitter chocolate. But there’s dirt in it too, deep, dark dirt, like the garden in October.” Her father: “His voice reminds me of tomato juice because there’s a metallic note to it.”
I truly loved experienced this novel and would strongly recommend this novel to book clubs – and most readers. However, I do not recommend reading this novel on an empty stomach – McHenry brings tantalizing recipes to life (provided at the start of many chapters).
Interested in winning a free copy? Drop me a comment below and I will choose a lucky winner by the weekend!
Be sure to check out other opinions of this novel, too: