These days, when an intelligent and determined person like Greta Thunburg can convey the urgency of climate degradation and hope to lead others to effect change, her actions and message defy societal limitations often imposed on people who manage their lives through the lens of Asperger’s Syndrome. Jael McHenry’s novel, The Kitchen Daughter immerses us in the main character Ginny’s world, apparent from the beginning as one dominated by a point on the autism scale and circumscribed by a number of circumstances not the least of which is the fear and anger Ginny experiences in close company among those she does not trust.
Narrated in the present and in first-person voice, Ginny’s state of mind, her coping mechanisms, and her small world of food and cooking obsessions draw in the reader. Those narrative choices produce an immediacy and intimate acquaintance with Ginny’s thoughts and confusion.
The narrative begins with a funeral occasioned by her parents’ accidental death. Ginny is probably in her late twenties and suffocating psychologically among the guests in her parents’ home who have come to pay their respects. Ginny’s response: “ Strangers are here. Disrupting my patterns. Breathing my air. I’m not just bad at crowds, crowds are bad at me.” As it happens often in this novel, she escapes the crowd of guests and retreats to a closet. Burying herself at its back, her fingers push inside the toes of her father’s boots and she finds relief.
Beside closets, food blogs, cooking shows, and recipes are her salvation. Focusing on ingredients or techniques soothes her and restores her equilibrium. In stressful situations like encountering her grandmother’s ghost (who before fading away delivers an incomplete warning) she thinks: “Panic, panic, can’t panic. Think of food. Think of sugar. I am a sugar cube in cold water. I won’t dissolve. Precise edges. Made up of tiny regular, secure parts. If the water were hotter I would worry, but it’s cold. I stay together. Precise. Clean. Surrounded, but whole.”
After the funeral and over a few months, some recipes become the magical gateway to Ginny’s self-understanding and eventually ‘normalized” socialization. I say ‘normalized’ because throughout the book the word “normal” is challenged and redefined. Ginny needs to justify her usual behavior as normal, but with a psychiatrist’s help, she adjusts her behavior by redefining “normal.” She also adjusts her relationship with food and her responses to situations that usually would drive her into the back of her parents’ closet.
The last chapter brings the reader into the present, perhaps a few months after her parents’ funeral. Ultimately, Ginny has found comfort in a limited number of social interactions, where her talent and strengths are recognized and where she can help others. McHenry relates Ginny’s growth in understanding and recognition of social cues by returning to a recipe presented at the story’s outset, for ribollita, an Italian bread soup. In this iteration, Ginny tinkers with the ingredients; to make it her own (behavior outside her usual pattern), she takes bits and pieces of different recipes she’s found for that dish and relishes the difference. Similarly, she accommodates herself to social situations by using her cooking skills to show her love for family and her few friends, adding a little here, something else there, on her way to her own new “normal.”