The last time I picked up a book with the tag line “For people who love Jodi Picoult,” I didn’t finish it. In fact, I can’t even remember the name of that book. The only thing I can remember is thinking “this is NOT Jodi. Not at all.” Needless to say, when I picked up The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry, which says “for readers of Jodi Picoult’s House Rules,” I was doubtful. And while I would hardly put McHenry’s debut on the same level as Picoult, I will certainly admit her writing, the story, and the characters all combined to make me forget I was mentally comparing the two and thoroughly enjoying the book.
Ginny and Amanda Selvaggio are forced to deal with the unexpected death of their parents, who were traveling together after their father retired from the hospital where he was a doctor. It becomes fairly obvious during the funeral and following gathering that Ginny isn’t dealing with the death the same way Amanda is. She wants to avoid all the people, hopes nobody talks to her or touches her, and eventually escapes to the kitchen where she can cook her nerves away. While making her Nonna’s ribollita, Ginny is shocked to see her dead grandmother appear in the kitchen. She’s even more shocked when Nonna tells her “Don’t let her…” but doesn’t get the rest of the warning out.
The presence of the ghost freaks Ginny out, and she runs to her safe spot: her parents’ bedroom closet, where she can safely huddle with their shoes and block the outside world. Amanda doesn’t appreciate Ginny’s behavior, and begins to plant the seeds for selling the house since she doesn’t think Ginny can take care of herself. The sisters fight back and forth over whether to sell or not, whether Ginny should live with Amanda and her family or not, and whether Ginny is even capable of making correct choices. Amanda even goes so far as to tell Ginny that she believes she suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, and Ginny does not deal well with the news.
While all this is going on, Ginny decides to experiment with her cooking and ghosts. She eventually discovers that if she cooks from the hand-written recipe of a dead person, they will appear to her as long as the scent of the food is in the air. She calls one stranger, Evangline, who scares her. She calls her mother, who continues Nonna’s warning with “Don’t let Amanda…,” and she finally calls her dad who answers some of the questions she’s been wondering about. She also befriends her cleaning lady, Gert’s, son, David, and begins to see what her place in the world could be.
The food descriptions McHenry uses brings every sense into the book. You can smell the caramelized onions, hear the boiling water, taste the hot chocolate, feel the squash, and see the aji de gallina. If McHenry, who is a passionate home cook with a food blog, cooks half as good as Ginny does, then she’s on my invite list for next Thanksgiving.
Not only is the food brought to life, but the characters are very real. Even though it’s obvious to the reader that Ginny is at least on the autism spectrum somewhere, you still feel her pain when it’s finally revealed to her that her “personality” is actually a “syndrome” which means she might not be as capable of independent living as she thought. Her friendship with David is touching, and I really enjoyed watching her grow outside herself. I only wish we had gotten to see more of Amanda underneath the surface, because most of the time, I didn’t find her a likeable character (though that could be partly because I found Ginny so likeable and it was hard to find her “opposite” as enjoyable).
I highly recommend this book. It’s a quick read, because you want to know what happens next and what Ginny’s going to cook next. It’ll stay with you for a while afterward making you ponder some questions, like “what questions would I ask a dead person” and “what if someone told me later in life that I had a syndrome?” All in all, McHenry’s debut is surely a sign of great works to come.