Jennifer Ryan‘s latest cosy novel, The Kitchen Front, has been described as “The Great British Bake Off set in World War Two”. Taking its title from a daily BBC radio show established in 1940 in cooperation with the Ministry of Food, the novel looks at life on the home front for four very different women, all through the lens of their relationship to food and cooking.
The characters are all competing against one another to become the new co-host of The Kitchen Front and are all connected in some way to the business of cooking – and are therefore each adept in their own ways at overcoming the challenges of rationing when it comes to making delicious food.
Audrey is a young widow with three young boys who lives in a derelict old house. She makes ends meet with a home catering business, supplying pies to local businesses and estates. One such estate belongs to her sister, Gwendoline (or Lady Gwendoline as she prefers to be called). Though the sisters are not close, Lady Gwendoline has loaned her sister a considerable sum of money in order to keep her afloat, though this obligation has only strained the relationship between them further. But Gwendoline’s life isn’t a bed of roses either. To the outside world, she is the confident lady of the manor, and competent cooking demonstrator for the Ministry of Food. Behind closed doors, she lives in fear of the harsh tempers of her husband.
Below stairs, kitchen maid Daisy considers herself far too shy to want a place on a radio show; but she enters as helpmeet to the ageing cook whom she adores. Might a cooking challenge be just the thing to bring her out of her shell? Finally, we meet Zelda Dupont, who is every bit as glamorous as her name might suggest. A chef from London, Zelda’s career has been ruined by Blitz, and by a certain feckless man. Now finding herself running the kitchen at a local pie factory, Zelda views The Kitchen Front as her ticket back to the top.
This novel is sweet, if rather predictable, and will appeal to readers looking for something cosy and extremely light. Unfortunately, I found most of the characters a little two dimensional and hard to relate to. The writing style throughout the novel tended towards the overly florid, right from the adjective laden first sentence. There were a few occasions where it seemed that Ryan had invented an unnecessary adverb too.
But, there was something about the story that made me want to keep reading. The premise of the cooking competition, and the real story behind the radio show, were compelling enough that I needed to know how everything would turn out. I was also fascinated by this overlooked aspect of World War Two history, namely what a basic element of day to day life – mealtime – might have been like for people on the Home Front.
The novel also included a number of recipes matching those mentioned in the story for anyone who might have the cooking skills to try them. Alas, this is not me.
Ultimately, the book was a little too saccharine for my tastes. But it should appeal to those who love heartwarming wartime stories and it will certainly appeal to food lovers.