Fiction: Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J Ryan Stradal
This quirky and inventive debut novel chronicles the life of Eva Thorbald, born to a hard-pressed chef father and a waitress mother. Her mother has ambitions to be a sommelier and deserts her husband and baby to follow her dreams in Australia. Her father drops dead of a heart attack soon afterwards, and Eva is raised by her loving, but poor, aunt and uncle who never reveal to her that they're not her real parents. She grows into a gangly awkward teenager who suffers relentless bullying in high school.
When she decides to use some of her home-grown chilli oil to wreak revenge on her tormentors, her aunt throws out her beloved chilli plants. But you can't shake the spirit of a strong-willed teenager with a passion for food so easily, especially one from St Paul-Minneapolis with all that Norwegian-Lutheran determination in her blood. "Once or twice, she had overheard people calling her parents 'white trash' and she had quickly figured out that no one protects or stands up for white trash", Stradal writes, in a bleak moment.
But this is far from a bleak novel. As much a book about the rise of the foodie culture as it is about Eva and her fractured family, it's at times both very funny and very moving. The story unfolds through eight chapters, from the viewpoint of eight characters, in a device similar to that used by Donal Ryan in The Spinning Heart, although the subject matter is entirely different.
It's not possible to read about a cast of bungling but well-meaning characters from a Lutheran Midwest background without thinking of Garrison Keillor, and comparisons will invariably be drawn. But that doesn't detract from this book's originality. What J Ryan Stradal might perhaps lack in Keilloresque finesse, he makes up for with recipes. Lots of recipes!
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