Bingo 22 (Not My Wheelhouse)
I don’t do well with contemporary fiction or modern literary fiction as a rule, but when Kitchens of the Great Midwest showed up in the 50% off bin at an indie bookstore I’m fond of, I decided to take a chance. The book then sat on my shelf for eight months. I picked it up to address the Not My Wheelhouse Bingo square. I was hoping this might be a rare exception to my bad luck with best-sellers off the general contemporary fiction list because I was born and raised in the Midwest. I know a lot of the places referenced in this novel, and I like food and cooking, both in practice and literature. That’s what I was hoping for: enough of a dose of the foodie stuff that it would override the generally overly emotional, ‘how can people be so stupid/sentimental/etc’ reactions I have to most novels of this sort.
There wasn’t enough foodie fun; it was sentimental, and also not within my tolerance for suspension of disbelief (which I have a good bit of given the amount of fantasy and sci-fi I read and enjoy). There were a few recipes, many pretty common and not terribly exciting if you’re familiar with general Midwestern food.
One of the biggest irritations in this story is the structure; I suspect it’s an attempt at being “literary” and to create suspense. The narrative perspective randomly chances to characters who you either have never met, or only briefly mentioned. How was I supposed to remember the name of lady who becomes the stepmother of Eva’s potential first boyfriend in high school when she shows up as narrative perspective 10ish years later? The novel also engages in unaccounted time skips. One really minor character is a teen about halfway through, but then still a teen after a good bit of time supposedly seems to have passed. The story starts with Eva’s parents meeting and her birth, and then time jumps to her life about 10 years later, then again about 5 years, and then I think I lost track. Eva is supposed to be this total natural genius about food, but there is virtually nothing about her learning working with food. She has a discussion with someone about how a particular type of tomato can’t be an heirloom variety because the producer was owned by Monsanto, and seems to have had a supernatural tolerance for hot peppers as a child, but she is virtually never actually shown touching the food. She talks about it, and other people say how amazing things she makes are, but that’s it.
The other issue I had is that this novel seems to hate mothers and mothering. Mothers abandon their children more than once, contemplate an abortion, have a child but never mention or do on page any form of motherhood, or are treated like screw-ups (the mother who raises Eva) or unlikable. There’s no reason for this, except that Eva apparently needs to never have had a mother so she can maintain her attitude of innocent wide-eyed floating through the world on her talent. Fathers are shown, like when Eva’s biological chef father creates the chart gor introducing newborn Eva to all kinds of gourmet things, and is hugely sad when the pediatrician tells him babies shouldn’t have solid food until the age of 12 months or so. Eva seems to have very little trouble in her life, except for elementary school when she’s bullied and assaulted. Her revenge on the boys who dare each other to force her to kiss them is not super creative though it is appreciated, but she seems to have no emotions about anything, ever. The only reason that stuff is there is to make her sympathetic, and it would have worked if she herself demonstrated any kind of emotional reactions to anything post age eleven.
I tried to like this, and at some points it almost worked, but there’s too much not my thing-ness here. At least it’s a quick read, so not a whole of time was wasted.