The Kitchen Front
Jennifer Ryan’s The Kitchen Front is a wonderful, charming tale about the healing power of friendship and how we best learn to stand on our own by first learning to lean on those who love us.
One of the biggest challenges facing the home front in Britain during the Second World War is food shortages. With severely limited cooking staples people arehaving to get extremely creative to put a decent dinner on the table. The government’s solution is a radio program called The Kitchen Front, designed to help home chefs create meals which work around food rationing. One of the hosts is a popular male radio personality. The BBC decides to hold a cooking competition to find the best possible female co-host for the broadcast, unleashing a serious conflict among four women in a small village who are each determined to get the job.
Since her husband’s death in combat Audrey has had her hands more than full. Her three boys feel their father’s loss keenly, and comforting them as well as feeding and clothing them is a full time job. Just to keep a roof over their heads, she’s had to borrow money from her sister Gwen – with whom she doesn’t get along and who takes every opportunity to berate, undermine and belittle Audrey. The only thing keeping Audrey’s small family afloat are the pies, cakes and other delicacies she bakes to bring in a few extra pennies per week. Being co-host of The Kitchen Front would be a huge boost to her business and her coffers.
Housemaid/kitchen girl Nell despises working for Lady Gwendolyn (Gwen) Strickland, a complete shrew who overworks and underpays her staff. Winning the competition will allow Nell to leave the isolated estate where she works, meet people – hopefully at least a few of them handsome single men – and establish a new career which doesn’t involve being at the beck and call of a nasty social climber.
The posh London hotel where the unmarried, pregnant Zelda worked as head cook was demolished and she’s spent the last few weeks working in a factory canteen in a small town. The interlude as a manufacturing plant chef in a quiet village has worked out to her advantage in that it will give her a chance to quietly give her child up for adoption without anyone who matters to her career being any the wiser. However, she has no intention of rusticating in the countryside forever so she needs to win this event to rekindle her London career. She’s climbed to the top from the bottom before and she’s willing to use every dirty trick she learned along the way to get the radio job.
What she thought was a brilliant match with a rich man has turned into a union fraught with horror for Lady Gwendolyn. Her increasingly violent husband has made it clear to her that she must move them up the social ladder and she’s convinced winning the contest will give her the star power to do just that. She can’t afford to lose, so Gwen advises her sister that she’ll call in her loan if Audrey doesn’t throw the race to her ,and she’s made it clear to Nell that she expects her to do the same. All that’s left now is dealing with Zelda.
Life during wartime is full of the unexpected however, and these ladies’ worlds get turned upside down, inside out and round and round during the competition – and before the contest is over, these four adversaries will find that friendship is the ingredient needed to truly win.
The author does an absolutely stellar job with her ensemble cast, giving us four unique heroines whose stories slowly weave together to create a charming tapestry of life in wartime rural England. Initially, the lovely, devastated Audrey, and the shy, downtrodden Nell are the only two heroines you really want to root for. Zelda, who’s been betrayed by everyone she’s ever loved, and Gwen, whose ambition landed her in an awful situation, can be so acerbic at first that they are hard to like. As we learn their backstories – and as Zelda and Gwen grow throughout the tale – we begin to love them as well. The characteristic that binds these four together is their sheer determination – these ladies are survivors, people who’ve thrived in tough circumstances and who continue to move doggedly forward with a mingling of grace and grit. The journey of their individual paths from pain and sorrow to success and happiness is lovely and one I was very glad to make with them.
As with any good tale about friendship, the author takes pains to show us how the four are better together than they are as individuals. Gwen, Zelda, Audrey and Nell bring out the best in each other. Not only do they challenge each other to be better cooks via the Kitchen Front competition but they also help each other become better people. Surviving can turn you hard, forcing you to look out only for yourself, or it can make you generous, a team player who helps others along the path to a better life as you achieve one of your own. It is the latter that happens in this novel and the author writes the tale of how our heroines make that choice with a joy, charm and warmth that pulls at the heartstrings,
Ryan does a fantastic job of inserting her rich historical research naturally into the text. The tension of airplane engines droning overhead, forcing people to wonder if they are enemy or ally and making folks figure out how to distinguish between the two and respond in moments is captured with terrific clarity. The frustrations and struggles of dealing with war rationing, of cooking with strange ingredients, and feeding a hungry family on questionable, often tasteless, textureless supplements is brought vividly to life. The bigotry and sexism of the era is also deftly handled within the confines of the story, especially the struggles women faced as they were forced to fend for themselves in a world designed to keep them from succeeding at doing so. Equally well handled is the issue of spousal abuse and how few resources were available to women at the time in dealing with it.
The only flaw in this stellar tale is that it is a bit heavy-handed in regards to the happy ending. Everything works out beautifully, with all four women finding their perfect niche in the world. It was exactly what I needed for where I am and I was completely thrilled with the finale, but those who prefer a touch more realism may be frustrated with the saccharine finish.
The Kitchen Front is a completely delightful tale filled with resilient, resourceful heroines, resonant history and hope for hopeless times. For those looking for a way to warm their heart and soul on a cold winter’s day, you can’t do better than this book.
Buy it at: Amazon, Audible, or your local independent bookstore
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