The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry tells the story of Ginny Selvaggio, a woman on the autistic spectrum who is struggling to assert her independence following the untimely death of her parents in an accident. She has been carefully protected by her mother all her life and her sister, Amanda, believes she is not capable of living on her own or taking care of herself. Despite her difficulty relating to others, Ginny connects deeply with the art of cooking and this sustains her as she faces conflict and emotions while advocating for her independence.
Ginny takes comfort in cooking and starts making family favorites almost immediately after the memorial service guests depart. She discovers that by cooking a recipe written in a deceased person's hand she can conjure their ghost. Ginny first conjures Nonna while making her ribolitta and her grandmother warns Ginny "Do not let her". With this warning, Nonna sets Ginny on a search for the meaning in her warning and she begins unraveling family secrets. Most importantly, she learns valuable lessons about herself and is given the opportunity to show just how well she can take care of herself.
I have seen many books recently centered around food with recipes sprinkled throughout the novel; The Kitchen Daughter, however, is much more than that. Food, cooking and the joy derived from both are integral to this novel and are incorporated into every aspect of the book. Ginny is so attuned to food that she perceives and describes people and situations in terms of taste and texture. For example:
His voice is muddy, that's what it is. Dark and brown and muddy. A note to it like coffee left too long on the burner. And unsweetened, bitter chocolate. But there's dirt in there too, deep, dark like a garden in October.Food is Ginny's comfort but it is also the filter through which she sees the world and for someone who cannot bear to look people in the eye, a filter is absolutely necessary.
While food and its power to bring people together is a central theme, the book is also about healing - there are many characters in the book who experience grief. We follow Ginny from the starkness of her parents' memorial service through her gradual realization of how she will go on without them. I was very impressed by Ginny's courage and determination - without the skills of rationalization or the ability to lean on others for support, Ginny journeyed through her grief and discovered her own strength could sustain her.
The Kitchen Daughter is moving and so well written; I felt as if I were in Ginny's head throughout the whole book. I often struggle with supernatural themes (ghosts etc) in books but in this novel it didn't give me pause at all and that is a credit to how well it is written and the fact that the ghosts furthered the story and Ginny's self discovery. Whether you are a chef, a foodie or just someone who appreciates well drawn characters in which you can invest, you will find something to love in this book.