Friday, April 1, 2016

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Reviewed by Ambrea

Lars Thorvald is a chef.  He loves food, he loves his wife, Cynthia, and he loves his baby daughter, Eva.  But when Cynthia falls in love with wine—and a sommelier who steals her heart—Lars is left to raise their daughter on his own and he’s determined to pass on his love of food (and cooking) to her.  Instilled with a deeply ingrained appreciation of flavorful food and gifted with a once-in-a-generation palate, Eva grows up to explore the different dishes of her native Minnesota.  She dabbles in everything from Scandinavian lutefisk to chocolate habaneros to golden bantam corn, creating the dishes that encapsulate her history and her life, culminating in a dinner so spectacular that it can’t be missed.

I was surprisingly enchanted by J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest.  Although it ultimately revolves around Eva Thorvald, it delves into the lives of the people who have helped shape her life—her cousin Brock, her close friend Pat Praeger, her worst enemy Olivia, and her biological father, Lars.  It weaves together their lives, introducing the stories of many characters and developing their individual history, as well as their intertwined lives.

It’s truly fascinating to see the connections between them.  I especially liked that each chapter was named for the dish that influenced Eva's life the most.  Each chapter reflects a specific period in her life:  the lutefisk her father used to make, the chocolate habanero peppers she grew in her closet, the sweet pepper jelly her cousin loved to eat, the golden bantam corn she used in one of her dishes when she cooked for friends—and each piece fits into the puzzle so meticulously as to reveal her entire life.

I loved the interconnected feeling of Kitchens of the Great Midwest, like a web that holds Eva and all the other characters together, like separate dishes that come together to form an excellent dinner.  All these ingredients come together to form an exquisite and intricate novel with wonderful characters, excellent storytelling, and fantastic narrators.

And, speaking of narrators, I loved listening to Kitchens of the Great Midwest as an audiobook.  Amy Ryan and Michael Stuhlbarg make excellent narrators, bringing the characters of Eva and Lars and Brock and others to life.  It brings a little something extra to the novel, gives it a singular flavor that left me craving more even as I reached the final chapter.

The language is a little strong in some spots (especially Brock’s chapters, which are littered with an excess of expletives), and the novel deals with some very mature themes.  While I wouldn't exactly recommend it to younger readers, I don't think that should stop anyone else from reading (or listening) and enjoying Kitchens of the Great Midwest.

Overall, I was incredibly pleased with Stradal's first novel.  It was an epic undertaking that mixed together some of the best storytelling I’ve found, a complicated mother-daughter relationship, food, and characters, making something that is positively wonderful.

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