by Kristen B.
The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan could be easily categorized (and perhaps dismissed) as “women’s fiction” since it offers a solid look at four women’s lives in 1942 Britain. I rather despair of idea that novels about women and their daily travails are some how less weighty or less literary than more masculine options. This book is a highly readable reminder that not all the wartime effort took place on the continent and upon the seas, amid spies and battles. The first page provides a list of what a week’s worth of rations were for an adult – and let me tell you, it wasn’t much! Rationing continued in the UK for more than a decade after the end of the war, and I have wondered if we could have sustained that kind of national effort. We tend to look back at the 1950s of a time of growth and prosperity in the US (although not for all demographics), but it was a very different prospect for our allies.
It naturally fell to women to figure out how to make rations stretch to feed their families. In the days before packaged or frozen foods, everything was local and homemade, and the reality was that nobody got enough to eat by modern standards. Gardens (along with pigs, chickens, and bees) were a survival strategy, not just patriotic palaver. The BBC really did host a show called The Kitchen Front, which included ideas and recipes to make rations work and stretch – whether it was tinned sardines, Spam, or some other unfamiliar type of protein, like whale meat. This book starts with that show and adds a fictional local contest to find a relatable female host.
Of the four main characters and contestants in the book, Audrey spends her entire waking life working to feed her family and maintain their house. Her husband was an early RAF casualty, and she has three growing, hungry boys. Her husband was also an artist who mortgaged their home to the rafters, and she is left baking pies and cakes to try to make ends meet. Her home and garden become the center of the story in crucial ways.
The other three main characters each have their own private battles to fight. Gwendoline is Audrey’s sister, though she married up with the local fat-cat businessman and landowner. While a social success, the marriage and the man have proven to be unhappy decisions. The kitchen maid and apprentice cook at Gwendoline’s manor house, Nell, needs a little confidence in her own skills. She provides a young, hopeful perspective. The final woman, Zelda DuPont, worked as a French-trained chef in fancy London hotels before the war brought her to head the canteen at Gwendoline’s husband’s pie making factory. Zelda has fought tooth and nail to succeed in a man’s world before an unscrupulous, handsome cad leaves her heading to the country, an unmarried mother to be.
The convenient machinations of the contest and various plot lines bring all four women together, with Gwendoline having a connection to each of the women but Audrey operating as the beating heart of the story. The plot is mostly predictable, but I didn’t mind that at all. The characters are so wonderful, each in her own way, that I loved spending time with them. Not only did I need to know who wins the BBC contest, I enjoyed their unique points of view and individual struggles. Is it better to marry for love or money and position? Is it better to have a career or raise a family? It is better to be in service or more independent? There are no right answers, but women still struggle with these questions and the myth of “doing it all.” But when we support each other and do it together, everyone wins.
Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, dance, and watch baseball (but not all at the same time).