It starts out on a happy note. A chef meets the woman of his dreams, and together they start a family. Although the gilt rubs off the novel pretty quickly, these early scenes set the tone for the rest of J. Ryan Stradal‘s Kitchens of the Great Midwest.
Each chapter of Stradal’s debut focuses on a new character, whose relation to protagonist Eva Thorvald grows increasingly more distant over the course of the novel. There are no entirely unconnected characters here, however, and readers will notice familiar names popping up in the background, creating a network of minor players that adds a depth and progression often lost in novels sporting multiple speakers. It’s a risky move, but Kitchens of the Great Midwest emerges victorious.
I’ve written previously on the pitfalls some male writers encounter when attempting to write female characters. Stradal avoids them all, successfully portraying his female-dominant cast without bias. Under his pen, a college student’s scam to gather money for an abortion is no better or worse than a desperate woman’s attempt to have herself arrested. The ebullient tone set in the novel’s opening pages extends to cover a multitude of controversial life-choices. It becomes easy to imagine Stradal as the wise elder, advising the despondent that these things happen, and that life, such as it is, will get better.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest offers a bounty to epicureans looking for literary reflections of their passions. That, of course, is obvious. But even readers with the most marginal food-and-wine interests will find themselves intrigued by Eva Thorvald’s culinary biography. Of all the novels I’ve read this year, I enjoyed Kitchens of the Great Midwest the most. Stradal’s charming, strange little novel will win you over from the initial tragedy to the bitter — yet, brilliant — end.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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