Book review: Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

(cover image courtesy Quercus)

 

When you pick up a book and the back cover blurb happily proclaims that J. Ryan Stradal’s novel is “joyous, quirky and heartwarming”, you fully expect it to be all those things.

After all, a blurb writer at a publishing company wouldn’t just make that sort of stuff up would they?

Well, likely not intentionally, but as you dive into this New York Times bestseller, which tells, tangentially for much of its length, the early life story of gifted Midwestern chef Eva Thorgald, who battled great odds to make it to the pinnacle of the culinary world, you begin to wonder if the person responsible for drawing possible readers had read beyond the broad brushstrokes elevator pitch summary.

And frankly, if they’d read even that, because while Kitchens of the Great Midwest is a great read, showcasing how profoundly our lives are shaped by others, and how we can still be our own person even so, “joyful, quirky and heartwarming” it most certainly is not.

That’s actually doing this novel a disservice because what it is is grimly realistic about how the cards can be really stacked against you and yet you can still rise above the tumult, chaos and poor life decisions of parents, close friends, onetime lovers and employers and still make something gloriously good of your short time here on earth.

And that is indeed what Eva, a food connoisseur, chill lover and gifted raconteur with a self-aware heart of gold, does, triumphing over a series of circumstances and drawing in a disparate group of people to create a family of people who grow and develop simply by being around her.

Is this sounds like The Food Network‘s take on Anne of Green Gables, then think again.

While Eva is a headstrong person whose heart is most definitely in the right place, loyal and faithful to a fault, she is not some naive, whimsical soul who floats through the engaging narrative on a carpet of happy thoughts and fairy dust.

She’s seen too much of the rougher side of life to be that sweet and unknowing.

A series of less-than-ideal, occasionally catastrophically sad life events leaves her with a father who’s an alcoholic, a mother who won’t be winning any Mother’s Day Mother of the Year contests and friends who don’t quite understand that she is a strange and unusual soul who will go places even so.

 

J. Ryan Stradal (image courtesy South Dakota Humanities Council)

 

The remarkable thing about Eva is that she somehow manages to beat the odds, taking every opportunity offered her from employment at top restaurants to the chance to stage high end culinary pop-up events.

She is proof that while life circumstances have a huge influence on who you become, they do not play the sole role in determining who you end up being.

Rather than sink into the mire of hopelessness and despair and half-realised dreams that many of the characters who play large and small roles in Eva’s life, the aspiring chef jumps from opportunity to opportunity, building a network of chance and friendship into the kind of life that makes her the envy of many.

It’s an inspiring tale told over about 30 years or so through what amounts in many ways, though they are tied together at the end in a slightly but not fatally so somewhat twee final act, to a series of interconnected short stories.

In these snapshots of Eva through various stages of her life, many of which feature the protagonist in passing rather than as the main act (they still do a great job of showcasing who Eva is and will become), we come to see a strikingly focused, talented young woman who never uses or abuses anyone, but with a sincerity of heart you might not expect from someone with so much stacked against them, simply move forward with building the life she wants one.

There is nothing “joyful, quirky or heartwarming” about any of it really but that’s to be expected from a book which, while it has its offbeat, odd moments (in the best possible way) is more likely to be real about the way life unfurls, than the gild the lily and pretend that everything is hilarious moments of idiosyncratic circumstance leading to a sigh-inducingly lovely finish.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is, to be fair, not some great literary masterpiece, and there were times when I wandered if I wanted to make it to the end, but by and large, it is a narratively-creative take on the way life often happens to us, and how we, and the people we come to know and maybe love, have a choice to either be weighed down by this, or take what we’re given and run with it, creating something that’s far more than the sum of its parts in the process.

 

(cover image courtesy Quercus)

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