Sunday, November 8, 2015

Staff Review: Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Many readers are calling J. Ryan Stradal's debut novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest "quirky." The way I'd describe it -- and a reader's possible reaction to it -- is this: it may not be your cup of tea if you love linear plots, character development, and satisfying resolutions. On the other hand, you may love it if you're open to vivid vignettes, you love eating (and reading about) food, and you have a big, broad sense of humor. Living in the northern Midwest (in Dubuque, for instance) will dispose you toward it too.

Although labeled a novel, Kitchens more closely resembles a set of linked stories, in the first half of which Eva Thorvald, the protagonist, is a child. Eva is gifted with an exceptional palate and through the course of the book's twenty years becomes the most celebrated chef in America, one whose exquisite dishes are available only through highly-sought-after, ticketed dinners at venues across the U.S. The second half of the book circles around Eva more distantly, through the exquisitely-portrayed (and sometimes skewered) lives of a large cast of secondary characters. 

Although there were a couple times early on when I considered dropping the book altogether (one chapter in particular just seemed too dark and too mean), I soldiered on and I'm so glad I did. I soon found myself laughing out loud, recognizing fictional characters that matched (to a T) individuals I'd known in Wisconsin, and marveling at the heartfelt poignance of some of the scenes. Originally from Minnesota, Stradal is a confident debut writer, maybe because writing is just one thing he does well (he's also a TV producer who knows a bit about food and a whole lot more about wine -- food and wine pairings feature prominently in the novel).

In the funniest parts, Stradal pokes gentle fun at Midwestern county-fair-bake-sale participants (who apparently haven't changed much since the fifties), but also at those hyper-fastidious eaters within the new food culture who are more obsessed with what they can't or won't eat than with what they can or will. A New York Times reviewer points out in a positive review that describes Kitchens as "a gastronomic portrait of a region," that "Stradal reserves his most gleeful satire for the overwrought foodies who rock back and forth in their chairs, weeping and licking their dishes, in response to a $5,000-a-plate dinner for which they’ve spent four years on the waiting list."

So, set aside any pre-conceived notions of what a novel should be and hop aboard for this fun, fast-moving ride. You may even decide to read the book twice, as the large cast of characters who re-appear only after the passage of many pages and years can be tricky to keep track of first time 'round (the book ought to come with a schematic). I wouldn't want to read book after book structured this way, but like the occasional gooey dessert, this book was pretty delicious.

~Ann, Adult Services

No comments:

Post a Comment