Archive Review – “The Kitchen Daughter” by Jael McHenry

Review first published 10/02/12

The Kitchen Daughter

Following the death of her parents, Ginny Selvaggio is a woman who deals with life in the only way that she knows how – through her talent for cookery.  But when she follows the recipe of her late Nonna’s soup, she is confronted with the ghost of her Nonna and the warning, “Do not let her…”

Now, she has to piece together a family mystery whilst her sister, Amanda, looks to move forward by sorting their parents belongings and aiming to sell the family home against Ginny’s wishes.

I’ll get the obvious stuff out of the way first, I bought this book mainly because of my love of food and because of the magical element to it.

It’s a book that is several elements and very much the sum of it’s parts.  It’s a family drama – primarily through the “conflict” between Ginny and Amanda over the sale of the house, but also because of Amanda’s reactions to Ginny’s behaviour due to her personality quirks which are attributed to Asperger’s Syndrome.  It is a book that has magic within it – specifically the way that Ginny resurrects the ghosts of people who have died through the use of recipes.  It is also a book where the lead character seeks to become empowered in spite of the fact that her parents have kept her wrapped in the metaphorical cotton wool and having a sister who believes knows best for her.

As the book is seen from Ginny’s point of view, you do get a clear insight into her personality.  Although she is portrayed as a person who has problems relating to people, being literal to what people say to her and a person who has to maintain a routine, she is also portrayed as an intelligent young woman who has a need to be independent from her sister.  As the book progresses, Ginny also becomes a bit of a risk-taker as she seeks to start a friendship her cleaner’s (Gert) son.

Due to the fact that you do see the story from Ginny’s point of view, the character of Amanda comes across as a bit of a bully, bordering on being the villain of the book – especially when she gets her estate agent friend to start showing people around the house against Ginny’s wishes and a point later in the book that I don’t wish to spoil for the reader.

Death and the pain of loss is also a significant theme of this book as you see different characters deal with these issues in different ways.  Ginny seeks to remember those that are passed away through cookery and physical objects, Amanda wants to deal with the loss in a business like manner by getting her parents’ belongings  packed and shipped off whilst wanting to sell the house, and Gert shows how the community bonds together at a time of loss and grieving through the organised provision of meals for mourners at her local temple.

Cookery and food serves two purposes in this book.  Firstly, as described above, it serves as a “sense memory” of those we have lost through the device of Ginny’s ability to resurrect ghosts through her cooking. Secondly, it acts as a control for Ginny’s condition as she uses her senses of how food feels, tastes and smells as an anchor when she undergoes stressful situations.

The pacing of the book is uneven for my personal taste with some chapters moving very quickly whilst others needing a bit longer to read.  I don’t know if this is a coincidence or by design, but I felt that this may have been another area where McHenry portrays Ginny’s personality with the slower chapters portraying a more lucid, relaxed version of the character whereas the quicker chapters serve to show Ginny when she is either excited or agitated.

After reading The Fault In Our Stars, any book was going to be a tough act to follow.  If you’re looking to read a book quickly, don’t pick this book.  Like a good meal, this is a book to savour and does not deserve to be a book where you rush to read it now.

Rating: 4/5


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