I’m going to tell you to read this book. And I know some of you are looking at that cover and thinking OH NO IT IS A FOOD BOOK. But you do not have to know, or care, how to chop an onion to understand The Kitchen Daughter. All you have to know is the way it feels to fear a future without everything you know and love.
Ginny is a young woman who’s lived with her parents all her life. They have protected her from the outside world, keeping her supplied with ingredients and cookbooks so that she can cook to her heart’s content. In her circumscribed world, her Asperger’s Syndrome is easy to manage. But then both parents die in an accident, and a post-funeral crowd descends on Ginny’s home. In her panic, she retreats to the kitchen, desperate to feel in control of something. She takes out her grandmother’s recipe for ribollita and crushes tomatoes, slices kale. She simmers and breathes deeply, and looks up to see the ghost of her grandmother in the kitchen. Somehow, she has developed the power to call up the dead when she cooks.
I have read a few books with autism-spectrum protagonists; some work for me better than others. Ginny works for me remarkably well. Although it is sometimes vexing to be trapped within her point of view, she always feels genuine. Her intelligence shines through her fear of new things, and yet she never achieves a premature insight. The book is about her struggle, and she struggles mightily. Ginny’s sister Amanda decides to sell the family home—the only place where Ginny feels safe—and to bring Ginny to live with her and her family. Ginny refuses to go. But since she’s never had to interact much with the outside world, she’s going to have to learn to fend for herself in ways that she’s never really considered before. And that will mean learning to be around other people, to communicate, to ask for what she needs and to give of herself to others. McHenry’s success is that Ginny is still Ginny at the end of the book, but she’s Ginny with a few after-market parts.
It’s impossible to write about The Kitchen Daughter without talking about food. Food is Ginny’s language; she interprets the world through her senses with a vocabulary based on ingredients and the application of heat. She understands transformation, the way onions go from hard white shards to tangles of golden sweetness. Almost everything she confronts is compared to an ingredient, even down to a man whose bald head reminds her of a moist chicken breast and whose breath is like bean water. Ginny retreats to the kitchen for self-care; it is the one place where she is in control, where “normal” is not as important as what tastes best to Ginny. So yes, it is A FOOD BOOK, but only in the sense that food is what Ginny knows, and to learn to understand Ginny is to learn a little about cooking. (As many a grandmother has said, it won’t kill you.)
That concept of normalcy is at the heart of The Kitchen Daughter. The magic realism elements are carefully employed to heighten Ginny’s journey from sheltered kitchen daughter to sturdy kitchen woman. By the end of the book, food is not only something for her to work on and learn about and obsess over; it’s also something to also share with the ones she loves. Jael McHenry has done a remarkable job in characterizing Ginny and giving her the kind of story arc that allows her to grow while remaining true to herself. I think you should read it, and allow Ginny to frustrate you and to bring out your protective instincts and to feed whatever part of your soul needs a little hot ribollita.