Too often, I feel as if literary fiction is in a rut. It seems like every literary novel these days is about one person’s relationship to their dysfunctional family with issues. I generalize, yes, and falling into this pattern doesn’t mean a book is bad; it just means it has to work a little harder to catch my interest.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest does that immediately by introducing us to Lars Thorvald, who was forced to help his family make lutefisk throughout his adolescence and was therefore shunned by his peers (especially his female peers) due to his particular stench. Right away, it’s obvious that Kitchens is something special—that its characters will stick with you like old friends long after the novel is finished.
Lars, in his adulthood, is passionate about food: so passionate that he develops a tasting plan for his newborn daughter, Eva (which the pediatrician quickly advises against until she’s old enough to get past formula and breast milk). Lars is heartbroken, for he wants so desperately to share his love of food with his daughter. As a character notes later in the book:
And for Eva, it does; an innate passion for food courses through her even without Lars’s early introduction. We don’t stay long with Lars as our protagonist, as we quickly move on to Eva as the central character in the second chapter of the novel. It’s here we begin to see that she will be the focus of the book, although no following chapter is delivered directly from her perspective. The events throughout the rest of the novel all center around her influence (whether directly or indirectly) on other people: her cousin, her boyfriend, her friends, and even contestants in a baking competition. But after the second chapter, she becomes a distant, untouchable figure only seen through other characters’ eyes.
This is what I love best about Kitchens. We see Eva as a young girl and get a sense of what’s going on in her head, but after that point, she begins developing into a chef, and in some ways, a legend. From her perfect palate to her frightening ability to stomach even the spiciest foods to her seemingly innate knack for making melt-in-your-mouth sweet corn succotash, Eva proves herself to be a prodigy. And through an incredible and unique series of events, she becomes an alluring mystery to those whose lives she touches. As readers, we’re equally fascinated.
The book was not without its flaws; there were moments, particularly near the end, where it felt as if things were cooked up a little too neatly, but I don’t feel this detracted from the art of the novel at all. Kitchens is beautifully done and nearly perfectly seasoned. My only critique is that it might be "just a little heavy on the rosemary, maybe." (Read the chapter called “Walleye,” and you’ll get it.)
Kitchens of the Great Midwest is different and lovely, and it really felt like a privilege to read this new author’s first novel weeks before it went on sale. It’s a warm, inviting piece of literary fiction that stands apart from its genre in a way that I find incredibly refreshing. Bonus points to Penguin Random House for choosing it at this season’s Title Wave pick—may it be an instant hit!
OVERALL RATING (within genre): 4/5 stars
TL;DR: This beautifully composed novel about how a young woman becomes a legendary cook is filled with incredibly memorable scenes and characters who are carried through their tale via a series of iconic recipes. It's a story of a life through food.