Jael McHenry’s passion for cooking and writing combine together in the most unique blend of sweet and bittersweet for her debut novel, The Kitchen Daughter in bookstores tomorrow, April 12, 2011. And, let it be noted, the clever, quirky cover art is the perfect appetizer for the feast spread within the pages.
The idea for the book began with the author creating a character who loves food, loves cooking, but is closed off from the rest of the world. Even though food is such a natural way to connect with people, it’s a conundrum that the young woman has never used her cooking to connect. But why? Jael realized that there had to be a reason/obstacle that prevented her protagonist from being able to reach out and that’s when she added Asperger’s syndrome to the mix. Ironically Ginny — the main character — had already been formed with many traits of an individual on the autism spectrum and, after more extensive research on Asperger’s, it became part of her identity as well as her story.
In fact, according to its synopsis, The Kitchen Daughter
is about a woman who discovers she can invoke ghosts by cooking from dead people’s recipes.
Julie & Julia meets Jodi Picoult in this poignant and delectable novel with recipes, chronicling one woman’s journey of self-discovery at the stove.
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.
Offering a fascinating glimpse into the unique mind of a woman struggling with Asperger’s and featuring evocative and mouth-watering descriptions of food, this lyrical novel is as delicious and joyful as a warm brownie.
Of course there are recipes, including the brownie recipe that goes so well with the HOT Chocolate Jael serves up in this video:
(If the video does not appear on your monitor, please watch it here.)
Creating the kitchen daughter character to be likable to readers, even with her seemingly anti-social behavior, might have been the author’s greatest challenge. But, by introducing Ginny at her parents’ funeral where she is surrounded by grief and struggling to control her emotions, well what could be more universal and relatable? As might be expected, Ginny is at her worst there. She’s scared, feeling abandoned, and her thinking fragmented. Her speech and actions reflect those feelings but isn’t that normal?
Ah, yet what is normal? That question is not only the message of the novel, it’s also Ginny’s personal need to be. Over the years this young woman has compiled The Normal Book filled with advice columns on what is normal. It’s a secret “security blanket,” a touchstone, to reassure her — despite what others might think — that she is normal. After all normal has a wide-range definition. Jael concedes that she’s always been interested in how people describe their own situations and how often they want an outside opinion on what they should do. And this becomes Ginny’s logic, as the author further explains:
“If people write in saying “‘Here’s what’s going on in my life, is this normal?”” a lot of times the columnists will say “‘You’re asking the wrong question.’” And I agree. Whether it’s “‘normal’” or not doesn’t mean it’s right for you. You have to figure things out for yourself, not by some made-up standard.”
What’s right and works for Ginny is cooking. By following a recipe, step-by-step, she’s soothed and feels in control. Even during anxious moments — when not in the kitchen — she can think about food as a distracting comfort. The fact is food not only is Ginny’s world, it becomes the way she views the real world. For example, because the character isn’t comfortable around people, she tends to describe most of them in food-related terms. Her intrusive, over-bearing/over-protective sister, Amanda, has “an orange juice voice,” while her father’s was “tomato juice.” And, through that type of thinking, Ginny is better able to relate.
There’s no question that the kitchen daughter has experienced a sudden, devastating trauma for which she is unprepared. Yet what’s important to remember is that this twentysomething young woman, who happens to have the added challenge of Asperger’s, is not inclined to give up. Instead Ginny seeks to take control for who she is and where she belongs. Simply put, it’s a variation on a young woman searching for happiness and “Mr. Right.” But Jael McHenry has upped the stakes with an insightfully original, poignant, and triumphant tale.
The Kitchen Daughter — given a glorious review in the May edition of O, The Oprah Magazine — is a delicious literary treat. It’s rich in lush description and delicious thought-provoking dilemmas stirred up by a truly heartwarming heroine. Please savor and enjoy!
Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away a copy of Jael McHenry’s The Kitchen Daughter in a random drawing of comments left only on this specific post. Comments left on other posts during the week will not be eligible. The deadline is Wednesday, April 13, 2011 at 7:00 p.m. EDT with the winners to be announced here in Thursday’s post. If you enter, please return Thursday to see if you’re a winner.