MangoJuiced Review: The Kitchen Daughter

I won a copy of The Kitchen Daughter from MangoJuiced and my review is posted over at their site. Cross-posting my review here but it would be great if you guys can drop by MangoJuiced and give it some love. 🙂

Here’s the summary from Jael McHenry’s website:

After the unexpected death of her parents, shy and sheltered Ginny Selvaggio, a young woman with Asperger’s Syndrome, seeks comfort in family recipes. But the rich, peppery scent of her Nonna’s soup draws an unexpected visitor into the kitchen: the ghost of Nonna herself, dead for twenty years, who appears with a cryptic warning — before vanishing like steam from a cooling dish.

A haunted kitchen isn’t Ginny’s only challenge. Her domineering sister Amanda insists on selling their parents’ house in Philadelphia, the only home Ginny has ever known. As she packs up her parents’ belongings, Ginny finds evidence of family secrets she isn’t sure how to unravel. She knows how to turn milk into cheese and cream into butter, but she doesn’t know why her mother hid a letter in the bedroom chimney, or the identity of the woman in her father’s photographs. The more she learns, the more she realizes the keys to these riddles lie with the dead, and there’s only one way to get answers: cook from her parents’ recipes, raise their ghosts, and ask them.

Ginny has never been good with people – she doesn’t like strangers and she doesn’t like talking to people. She’s not comfortable with physical contact and only allows a handful of people to touch her. She lives with her parents, in the house where she grew up and fills her days with cooking. Food comforts her and that’s what she uses as a coping mechanism. Here’s a sample of the writing and how Ginny uses food to calm herself:

Her hand is close to my arm. My options are limited. I can’t run away. I can’t handle this.

I lose myself in food.

The rich, wet texture of melting chocolate. The way good aged goat cheese coats your tongue. The silky feel of pasta dough when it’s been pressed and rested just enough. How the scent of onions changes, over an hour, from raw to mellow, sharp to sweet, and all that even without tasting. The simplest magic: how heat transforms.

It’s not surprising that when her world is shaken by several events (the death of her parents, the presence of strangers in her home because of the funeral and her sister’s demands), Ginny turns to food. Even though I’m not a good cook like Ginny is, I could relate to how food comforts her. I find food comforting too but my interests lie in consumption rather than production. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. The Kitchen Daughter is something that I’d recommend to readers who like their fiction with generous helpings of various food items. Just make sure that you have a snack within reach when you decide to pick this up. Each chapter starts with a recipe and this is it how it looks on my Kindle:

I think we’ve established that there are a lot of food references in The Kitchen Daughter but it’s more than just about food – it’s also about Ginny coming to terms with the death of her parents and in the process, learning more about herself and her family. It was interesting being inside Ginny’s head because she’s such a unique character. Right from the start, the reader knows that there’s something different about Ginny. When asked if she has a condition or anything, she says that what she has “is a personality.” I liked that the story is told from her perspective because it gives us an inside look of how she processes everything around her. It makes me realize that I take so many things for granted in my life – that I’m not socially awkward, that I’m not bothered by physical contact, which I think is a big thing when you live in the Philippines because people have no respect for personal space around here (e.g. public transportation). So even if I don’t think I have a lot of things in common with Ginny, I could still sympathize with her.

I feel like The Kitchen Daughter is a quiet sort of novel because it’s mostly about Ginny and her internal struggles – how she copes with everything that happens in her life and how she tentatively reaches out to the secondary characters. It’s a book about relationships between family members and between friends. It’s also about the intricacies of life – how people have different ways of handling grief and sadness. The Kitchen Daughter is a heartwarming read and a well-written debut novel, the kind of book that you read during a weekend afternoon when you want to get cozy. I’m looking forward to seeing what Jael McHenry has in store for us next.