I fell in love with the cover and the title and the conceit that the book is built around but I half expected to be disappointed, so many books don't live up to their covers and so many clever conceits turn into pedestrian prose, but instead, I was deeply impressed by 'The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest'. So much so that I immediately bought Stradal's second novel 'The Lager Queen Of Minnesota' (another great cover and catchy title but this time my expectations are high).
The life of Eva Thorvald, from her conception onwards, is le fil rouge that stitches together 'The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest'. Eva's life provides a sense of connection and continuity but, except for one chapter, when she is ten turning elven, Eva's is not the main focus of the book. Each chapter of the book is focused on and told from the point of view of someone whose life has touched Eva's. Each chapter also involves a dish that Eva will use by the end of the book.
It's easy to imagine how disjointed and burdensome a story structure like that could become but Stradal makes it work brilliantly. He never lets the structure distract from the narrative, like seeing a puppet's strings. He uses it as a trellis, helping the story climb higher.
I think it works so well because each new character is at the centre of their own world, is fully and empathetically imagined and has their own distinctive voice. As each person's story is told, we get only the most indirect view of Eva, filtered through the passions and problems of the person the chapter is about but we get a deeply personal account of a key moment in each person's life and what it means to them. Each character's story is also linked to a dish which acts as a kind of emoji for the mood of the chapter, With each new dish we taste a new life and build up a sort of scent trail of intense flavours wrapped around memories of important moments.
Yet 'The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest' comes together as something more than a set of thematically linked short stories. The novel has a shape of its own. The effect reminds me of how Hockney amalgamated polaroids for his self-portrait.
Food and food culture are central to the story. Eva has a once-in-a-generation palet and an extreme tolerance for hot spices. Her obsession with sourcing and making perfect dishes coincides with the rise of Foodie culture in the US. I enjoyed watching her lead the charge in sourcing fresh food and getting perfect flavours by having perfect ingredients. I also enjoyed the chapter where we were shown the Foodie culture grown into a pretentious, intolerant cult that was unable to recognise the love in traditional home cooking.
One of the things that I loved about 'The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest' was how accessible the book is. The writing is engaging, honest, compassionate and deceptively simple. It made me smile and it made me cry but it never made me feel manipulated.
Here's an example. When we meet the man who will be Eva's father, he is a chef who, after an extended period of involuntary celibacy, caused mainly by spending his teens stinking of cod from making Lutefisk, finally falls for a waitress with 'strong erroneous food opinions.' His reaction to his good fortune made me smile:
'He couldn't help it. He was in love by the time she left the kitchen but love made him feel sad and doomed as usual.'
I recommend the audiobook version of 'Kitchens Of The Great Midwest' which was perfectly narrated by Caitlin Thorburn. Go here to hear a sample of Audible.