Book Review: Kitchens of the Great Midwest

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“What is it about?” “What makes it so good?” “Why should I read it?”

These are all normal, valid questions that frustrate me when it comes to Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal. I just want to yell at people to read it—which I do. I routinely scrounge and buy copies to give away at a moment’s notice. But I would be admitting failure as a publishing professional and well-read human being to leave these questions unanswered. This is my passionate, well-intentioned plea that reading Kitchens of the Great Midwest is non-negotiable. You are not the person you were meant to be until you have read this.

There is a noticeable trend in recent novels—especially those of 2015—to play with time and perspective, to break the traditional narrative structure and show us angles. Maybe they’re only the main, driving narrative angles, as with Gillian Flynn’s work or Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. Maybe they’re the seeming epitome of tangential, like Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire—or even a simple trick of time as in Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood. These are only a handful of examples that show the novel is evolving, if not undergoing an all-out revolution.

Enter J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest— stage left, with a flourish.

The cover is enough to make you curious; the first page is enough to make you want to read the entire novel twice, already. But the structure, as many have noted, is what really pulls you in. With a deft prose at times not unlike Nabokov, we are set journeying through the minds and appetites of a generation—and we’re hooked.

We start with Eva Thorvald’s mother and father, Cynthia and Lars. Lars is endearing, instantly lovable. He (and arguably Cynthia as well) blesses Eva with her precocious palate. Our mouths are watering as Lars details a careful diet for baby Eva, ignoring a pediatrician’s advice and preparing puréed pork shoulder and olive tapenade. Lars notes how lucky Eva is to be teething at the start of squash season. It seems to be just this brand of “luck,” of happenstance, that carries Eva through her entire life. She is the protagonist, but she flits in and out of the novel’s fore- and background. We see her childhood rife with hints of her burgeoning culinary talents, her school life as an unfortunate victim of bullying, her flirtation with Will Prager just as she grows into herself, her strong bond with cousins Randy and Braque. And Eva’s adult life is filled to the brim with even more lively characters. As she climbs her way to the impossibly glamorous summit of the culinary world, the pieces that paved the way just fall into place, leaving you both satisfied and physically starving.

Scattered throughout the novel are irresistible recipes, each chapter themed around a particular dish that shaped Eva’s life and career. I can’t wait to taste the sugary, sinful simplicity that is Pat’s bars. (They have everything you want: graham crackers, peanut butter, butter, sugar, chocolate chips—in bar form, you guys.) But naturally, it’s Eva’s menu that tops it all, with dishes like pan-seared Walleye over Golden Bantam succotash with sweet corn, red onion, and Blue Lake green beans. I will admit here that I’m not the greatest chef, but this book makes me want to try. (Let’s do lunch. I’ll bring the French Onion soup.)

Structurally, we only get each perspective once. A chapter ends and I’m screaming, upset, convinced I’ll never know what happened to these beloved characters and friends. But Stradal knows my curiosity has lingered, that I’m wondering what happened to Braque, Pat, Octavia. This is where the most difficult-to-explain magic happens, as Stradal weaves the narratives through each other to fill in the blanks. With such a tapestry of personalities, I’m impressed no threads are left to fray and unravel. I care so deeply about each character that none is less dear as we jump from person to person.

And the voice of each character is so clear, so distinct! I hate Octavia and her meddling bitchiness of faded youth as much as I adore the teenage gawkiness of Will, or the shaken confidence and resilience of Braque. How does Stradal inhabit these characters so expertly? (I feel like I should be able to tell you, but instead let’s just read it and stare at each other in awe, consider how we thought we understood cause-and-effect before this novel.)

And that’s what I’ll leave you with: how this novel has stuck with me and made me such an advocate for it. This novel may be riding a trend, but it is the master of it, the work that should be studied to perfect this narrative style and structure. I find myself wondering about the millions and billions of seemingly trivial things that led to me sitting down to write this review, to turning the wrong corner and bumping into someone from a past life. Everything must have been executed perfectly, have gone exactly wrong in the most precise, if seemingly casual, way. This novel is the butterfly effect in action, from the first taste of a stolen raw tomato to the last perfectly curated digestif.

I’ll remind you that this is J. Ryan Stradal’s first novel. Needless to say, we’re hungry for more.

P.S. If you have theories on “swet peper jely,” I’m dying to hear them.

Post by Madison West. Buy the book at amazon.com or some less heinous retailer.

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