Geez. This book got off to such an incredibly strong start, in which the author, a former Minnesotan, paints the world of 1980s Minnesota so clearly and with great humor combined with great affection, and with such interesting characters, that I thought for sure this one was going to be a 2015 Top-10 contender.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest is about a chef, Lars Thorvald, who marries a server with sommelier aspirations. They have a baby, Eva, but shortly after she's born, Cynthia (the wife) takes off to become a sommelier, having realized she doesn't have it in her to be a mother. Lars is heartbroken, but loves Eva with every ounce of his being, to the point where he makes elaborate plans for her first exposures to solid food. But (not much of a spoiler, this all happens in the first chapter) he unexpectedly dies, and Eva is taken in by well-meaning but not terribly bright--and definitely not food-astute--relatives.
Really good set-up, yes? Eventually Eva becomes a major-league chef. Wouldn't you love to see how that happened?
Me too. Unfortunately, after the second chapter, where we see Eva as a frustrated adolescent, trying to raise chocolate habanero peppers with a grow light, we never really get to see Eva again. She pops up now and then, but the author takes the book in a different direction. The rest of the chapters have changing points-of-view, changing locales, with the one (rather weak) link being that at some time or another, everyone runs into Eva. But for the reader, she's a shadowy figure. And that's so disappointing.
I've seen several reviews that compare this to Olive Kitteridge. I don't think that's a fair comparison. Yes, Elizabeth Strout used the same technique of exploring a character through the eyes of others in her community. But in that case, we saw more of Olive herself, and we definitely knew her and understood her by the end of the book. Not so in Kitchens, where the connections are too tangential, and we lose track of Eva.
The other problem with this structure is that some of the characters who are explored are not three-dimensional, but at times painfully stereotypical of small-town Minnesota. That's a problem that might have been mitigated if we'd spent more time with some of them, but they each get a chapter, with a few making unexplained cameos later on. Some of the storylines simply end with no actual resolution.
So, not quite the great Minnesota novel. Some of the writing, especially early on, is strong enough that I'll keep an eye out for the author's next book. I'd love to see him try another hand at a book so deeply rooted in the Midwest, but develop his characters much more fully next time.