>> Thursday, June 09, 2016
Who is Eva Thorvald?This is the story of Eva, a girl who grows up with a miraculous palate and a deep love of food, in spite of her unpromising upbringing. Eva's father was a chef, but he died when Eva was still a baby. Since her mother had just abandoned the two of them when he died, Eva is then brought up by her uncle and aunt, who are... well, whatever the opposite of "foodies" is!
To her single father, a chef, she's a pint-sized recipe tester and the love of his life. To the chilli chowdown contestants of Cook County, Illinois, she's a fire-eating demon. To the fashionable foodie goddess of supper clubs, she's a wanton threat. She's an enigma, a secret ingredient that no one can put their finger on. Eva will surprise everyone.
On the day before her eleventh birthday, she's cultivating chilli peppers in her wardrobe like a pro. Abandoned by her mother, gangly and poor, Eva arms herself with the weapons of her unknown heritage: a kick-ass palate and a passion bordering on obsession.
Over the years, her tastes grow, and so do her ambitions. One day Eva will be the greatest chef in the world. But along the way, the people she meets will shape her - and she, them - in ways unforgettable, riotous and profound. So she - for one - knows exactly who she is by the time her mother returns.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest is about the family you lose, the friends you make and chance connections that can define a life. Joyful, quirky or brazen, everyone lends their voice to tell Eva's story - one that's as heartwarming as it is irresistible, taking the bitter with the sweet.
While Eva is the protagonist of the book, her story is told indirectly. Stradal uses a really interesting structure, with a book that is a novel, but also close to a collection of short stories. Each chapter of the book jumps a few years into the future, and is told from a different perspective. Only one chapter is narrated by Eva herself, and that is one that takes place when she's a young child. The narrator is different in each of the others, and it's sometimes characters we've seen before, often people we haven't yet met. In these chapters, the focus really is on the person narrating. Eva is significant to different extents: sometimes she's almost the whole point of the story (like in the chapter narrated by her teenaged suitor), sometimes she's only a peripheral character (like in the chapter narrated by a lady entering baking competitions with her bars). I liked figuring out the connections (e.g. the lady entering baking competitions? She happens to be the teenage boyfriend's stepmum -there are lots of connections like that), and it all comes to a great climax in a fantastic final episode, where quite a few of the different threads come together.
The structure may sound a bit weird, but I really liked it and thought it worked wonderfully. I liked seeing Eva from the outside. Yes, we do lose some intimacy with her, but I think her slight air of mysteriousness worked.
Something I particularly liked was the humour. There are a couple of instances of laugh-out-loud humour, but mostly it's just a constant, low-key thing, present in pretty much every paragraph. It's an observational and quite gentle kind of humour, just my sort of thing.
I also really enjoyed the setting of the US Midwest. There's quite a variety there, from the Scandinavian heritage prominent in the first few chapters, to the much more multicultural city settings later on. Oh, and the food! I felt Stradal hit a happy medium there. There's a true love of food here, both the traditional and the super-sophisticated, and Stradal pokes fun at both sides (my favourite chapter for that was the one with the baking competitions!).
This is not a deep or deeply affecting book, but it was a deeply enjoyable one.
MY GRADE: A B+.