This debut novel has probably the most misleading title ever.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest is my local bookstore’s selection for the month. At first, based on the title I thought that this was a memoir, cookbook, or another genre of non-fiction, but then I found out that it was a novel and I was very excited to read it.
This is J. Ryan Stradal’s first book, and he crafts the story of a chef on the rise through the flavors that influence her cooking.
Eva Thorvald is born into a food-obsessed family and finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of Minnesota.
From Scandinavian Lutefisk, Golden Bantam corn, and hyrdoponic habaneros, each ingredient presents itself on Eva’s path towards becoming the chef behind legendary pop-up supper club culminating in an opulent feast that showcases her spirit and resilience.
What I find unique about this book is its presentation. It’s about Eva but many of the chapters aren’t from Eva’s perspective and instead they focus on characters that surround Eva and her cooking.
Each milestone of Eva’s life is presented in sections named for the flavor they represent. The first chapter for example, Lutefisk, chronicles Eva’s first six months with her gifted chef father Lars. While Sweet Pepper Jelly, introduces one of Eva’s cousins.
As the story progresses we see Eva at eleven, sixteen, twenty, and onwards. Each time through the lens of a different character connected to her life.
One of the biggest concerns was the fact that we heard so little from Eva on this journey, but I think that’s a point in the book’s favor. This could have been a rags to riches story, but instead Stradal took a different approach, and introduced a ensemble of characters instead of just one.
In this way, his main character becomes an enigma and I came away from this thinking about celebrities and how well people really know them.
The lack of a personal voice seemed to fit Eva. She doesn’t seek out fame, this is something that she loves, and she’s good at it. The lack of her inner thoughts shows how guarded Eva is with her inner circle.
As the book progresses, it becomes like a game of six degrees of separation, with several threads continuing and some of the same characters popping up.
I could make an exhaustive laundry list of each character and tell you what I liked about them, but it’s hard to sum up all of what makes this book great.
It is a story with a kaleidoscopic view of a single person’s life, and it is done well.
Each character is fully realized with a world around them and their own motives and goals. Although we may not get a full biography of each character, these moments are poignant, raw, and can deal with some very complex issues.
Each character has their own mentality, their own way of thinking, and I had a hard time putting this book down.
It’s certainly an enjoyable read with a very direct narrative style and complex plot. J. Ryan Stradal is currently working on a second book and I cannot wait to give it a read.
FINAL RATING: 4.5 Stars