Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Kitchen Daughter, by Jael McHenry

The first chapter of The Kitchen Daughter is a gem. Ginny Selvaggio is at her parents' funeral, and she's having difficulty dealing with all the people--looking to her sister for cues, as well as rescue, she also uses what are clearly long-term coping strategies--thinking about cooking, cooking, and shutting herself in the closet with her hands shoved into one or another pair of her parents' shoes. McHenry describes Ginny's responses so well that we immediately grasp that Ginny has some kind of social disorder (which turns out to be undiagnosed Asperger's--probably) and how she copes with it; we also like her, want to cook with her, and understand quite a bit about her family situation.

Ginny's married sister Amanda is well-intentioned but a bit too "take charge," and much of the story is about their conflicts--about whether they should sell the family home (where Ginny still lives), whether Ginny should move in with Amanda's family, and whether Amanda's daughter Shannon might have the same problem that Ginny has. There's also a magical realism element--starting at the funeral, when Ginny cooks something exactly as specified on a hand-written recipe card, the ghost of the person who wrote the recipe appears. Through these appearances, Ginny learns more about her family history and is warned against letting Amanda do something...what neither we nor Ginny know. In another subplot, the family's cleaning lady plots to get Ginny out of the house, and Ginny becomes friendly with her grief-stricken son.

Reading this book is not about the plot--it's about the window into Ginny's mind and her coping strategies (I absolutely love her 'Normal Book" and the way she thinks about cooking and food to calm herself). And it's about pondering what it means to be normal, to help someone you don't really understand, to grieve.


Favorite passage:
I lose myself in food. The rich wet texture of melting chocolate. The way good aged goat cheese coats your tongue. The silky feel of pasta dough when it's been rested and rested just enough. How the scent of onions changes, over an hour, from raw to mellow, sharp to sweet, and all that even without tasting. The simplest magic: how heat transforms.

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