Thursday, April 14, 2011

Review: The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines normal as "conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern" and "of, relating to, or characterized by average intelligence or development" among other definitions. These definitions then require an outside entity to determine what the "standard" or "average" is. Therein lies the rub with the labels of both normal and abnormal. And so we try to quantify these concepts but there are so many different normals that it is confusing, and to character Ginny Selvaggio, reassuring.

Opening at the funeral for Ginny's parents, the novel immediately highlights some of Ginny's quirkier coping mechanisms for dealing with crowds, being touched, making eye contact, and just generally being overwhelmed. It is pretty immediately clear that Ginny is different. She's 26 and has never been formally diagnosed with anything but she shows classic Asperger's symptoms. Having always lived at home with her parents and protected from the world, their accidental deaths have left her vulnerable to her overwhelmed, bossy younger sister's desires and unable to articulate her own needs and desires. And so she retreats to one of the few places she feels comfortable: the kitchen. Ginny loves to cook and finds peace in the kitchen amongst the ingredients and cooking techniques.

In fact, Ginny discovers that when she follows a handwritten recipe exactly, she actually conjures the ghost of the original cook. Making her grandmother's ribollita after the funeral, she is so shocked when her grandmother's ghost manifests, that she only hears a part of the important message her grandmother has for her. But this fragment of a sentence and her subsequent discovery of some photographs and a cryptic letter from her father to her mother drives the narrative as Ginny searches to unravel long hidden family secrets even as she must figure out how to convince her sister not to sell the family home so important for Ginny's stability and routine.

Ginny is a charming and real character. Her desire for the truth about the letter and the warning but her refusal to pigeon-hole herself with a diagnosis reveals a lot about her character, as does her reluctance to summon the ghosts of her so recently deceased parents through their recipes. Told mainly through Ginny's perspective, the reader is privy to all of her thoughts and rationales, her struggles and triumphs. The other characters in the story circle around Ginny, protective and careful, frustrated and insensitive. Although there are a few other main characters out there narrating from their place on the autism spectrum, the premise of this novel is unique and appealing. It is as individual as each person in the world and offers up another perspective on the shifting sands of normal. The recipes and Ginny's habit of cooking, either in fact or simply in her head, mean that this will appeal to my fellow readers of food-laced fiction. And while the supernatural element might drive some readers away, more will be intrigued by the idea of having just one more conversation with loved ones, especially through their signature kitchen dishes. An original and wonderful novel, this was a quick and charming read.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. Again, a good review of this book. This is #4 I've read this morning. I simply had to go order it on my Kindle. Had to. LOL

  2. This book looks awesome. I have a nephew with Asperger's, I'll have to read this so maybe it can help me relate a bit to him and my brother and my SIL. Thanks for your reviews, Kristen!

  3. I read this one last week and thought it was really sweet! But there's a mystery that I don't remember getting an answer for. Was it ever revealed what all the ghosts were warning her against? I remember Ginny's guesses, but I don't remember if it was ever confirmed.


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