Tuesday, March 27, 2012

275 (2012 #20). The Kitchen Daughter

by Jael McHenry

Ginny Selvaggio, a young woman with Asperger syndrome, finds after her parents' deaths in an accident that she can conjure up the dead by exactly following a recipe written in the dead person's handwriting.  In the process, she learns some family secrets, deals with her grief, and finds out that she is "normal," in her own way, that she can manage her Asperger's and live alone - and in the rest of the world - if she chooses.

Author Jael McHenry is a self-described amateur cook and food (and writing) blogger who was also a high school valedictorian, a semi-finalist in the Jeopardy college tournament, and earner of a masters of fine arts degree in creative writing.  This is her first novel, but it doesn't read like one.

Some years ago I worked with a bright little boy who was diagnosed with Asperger's, and I wondered if McHenry also had that diagnosis or knew someone who did.  No on both counts.  In an excellent guest post at Beyond the Margins, she said,
I started out researching Asperger’s because this character needed to be isolated by both circumstances and by choice, but I felt like standard shyness or awkwardness wasn’t enough. I’ve always been interested in how other people think, how the human brain works, how we all interpret and misinterpret each other because of what we each separately bring to our interactions. So it wasn’t a stretch for me to wonder if Asperger’s might fit the story I was trying to tell.
McHenry has done an excellent job at portraying the spectrum that is Asperger's, the fact that the condition has a range of manifestations, and, according to her guest post, "there isn’t one pure 'experience of Asperger’s,' the same way there’s no one 'experience' of being a woman or an 'experience' of living in the United States."

Since Ginny is a foodie, just like the author, Ginny uses a lot of food metaphors to describe people and events.  In an interview, McHenry explains,
Food is the lens through which Ginny sees the whole world....She isn’t comfortable with people, so she filters them through this lens, and everything about them becomes food-related, and that makes her comfortable. A voice like orange juice [or spearmint or espresso]. Someone’s shoulder like the shank end of a ham. There’s a point where she analyzes the color of someone’s skin as "what other people would call olive," but because olives are different colors, she has to pin it down to a particular type of olive. It’s another coping mechanism, something she can do internally to deal with the unpleasant external. 
The metaphors also help emphasize Ginny' point of view, from which the story is told (in first person).

Most (but not all) chapters begin with a recipe, which also serve as illustrations, since they are printed in different handwriting styles on a recipe-card background.  This is very effective as it ties in well with the plot mechanism of conjuring spirits by making a recipe written in that dead person's hand.

I also LOVED the whole concept of the "Normal Book"!  In another interview, McHenry describes it:
The Normal Book is a collection of snippets cut out of advice columns that Ginny has pasted into a blank book, phrases and sentences that include the word "normal." When you read them all together, there’s this sense that "normal" is something everyone’s worried about being, but it really has no set meaning. Ginny needs rules and evidence and guidelines to feel comfortable, so the Normal Book was my way of giving her that comfort.
My book club had a great discussion of this book last week.  I made the (yummy and easy) "Midnight Cry Brownies" (a Jael McHenry original, on page 47), which begin chapter 4, the one where the scary and mysterious Evangeline appears.  We talked about the recipes, food blogs (Kitcherati.com does not exist), the food metaphors, the power of food to evoke memories (the "spirit") of a person, dealing with grief, Asperger's, sisters (and parents), and the idea of "normal."  We also talked about the different covers (hardbound pictured above, paperback below - I love both, the hardbound for the artistic imagery and the softcover for the remembrances of my own and my offspring's childhoods that it evokes).  A lot of fodder in one little book!  The publisher's reading group guide is one of the better ones I've seen.

I will certainly be watching for Jael McHenry's next book.  Five-plus stars for this one!

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[I received a hardbound copy of this book as a gift.]

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