From the Kitchen of Half Truth by Maria Goodin (Sourcebooks Landmark; 352 pages; $14.99).
When I was a little girl, my grandfather regaled me with stories while I listened, rapt, and ate up every word he said. I truly believed he had single-handedly captured Hitler, been a cowboy who fought Indians, and buried a wicked witch in his backyard (there was even a cement marker to indicate her final resting place). Imagine my surprise when I discovered Hitler committed suicide or that my grandfather, nicknamed “Cowboy,” was not a real cowboy or that the marker was simply ornamental. I recovered but continue to take his beloved yarns with a grain of salt, as he loves nothing more than to invent stories. The tall tales of my granddaddy cannot compare with the whoppers that Valerie May tells her daughter Meg, the main character of Maria Goodin’s delightful novel, From the Kitchen of Half Truth.
Born prematurely, a little “underdone,” Meg was smaller than other babies. Her grandfather placed her “at the end of the garden next to the hedgerow” where she received “full sun in the morning and plenty of shade in the afternoon.” To no avail. It didn’t work.
So Meg’s mother and grandfather jointly agreed to move the baby “closer to the garden sprinkler.” But Meg stayed the same. The family doctor advised them to feed bicarbonate of soda to the infant, as it was “a good raising agent” and then “leave her in the warm water heater closet overnight.” That, too, failed.
Meg’s grandmother suggested that her daughter talk to the baby, just as she would a plant. After an initial reluctance, Valerie decides to tell her baby a story. “For the first time ever,” Meg reveals, “I gave my mother a gummy smile, and by the end of the story she swears I had grown an entire inch.”
These are all Valerie’s words, Meg quickly points out to us in the novel’s first pages; they are not Meg’s memories. Meg, now 21, cannot recall anything from the first five years of her life. All Meg has are her mother’s memories, “which in fact are not memories at all but ridiculous fantasies that reflect her obsession with food and cooking” and prevent Meg from understanding her own childhood. Raised on fantasies, Meg’s entire childhood is a farce.
Why can’t Meg just ask her mother to tell her the truth, you ask. Well, it’s not that easy. Valerie has not been forthcoming when it comes to truth and fiction in the past, and she is unlikely to divulge any information to Meg now that is dying of cancer. Meg cannot ask her father either, a French chef who died an ugly and tragic death involving a pastry mixer in a “quest in create the finest cherry tart and name it after” Meg’s mother.
All Meg wants is to know her own history and her own family history—with no outlandish fantasies whatsoever. This desire leads her to study genetics. Valerie does not understand what attracts her daughter to the study of DNA. “But you know who you are, darling,” Valerie says. To which Meg replies, rather unhappily, “But I don’t. Thanks to you, I don’t have a clue who I am.”
Valerie’s time is quickly running out, and Meg leaves school to spend time with her mother. This should be the perfect time for mother to tell her daughter the truth, but Valerie still clings to her myths. Meg slowly, and with the help of her mother’s gardener, begins to understand that fantasies, like ancient creation stories and myths, sometimes serve a higher purpose and wonders about her mother’s rationale.
Sometimes people escape into fantasy to get away from reality. Slowly, Goodin reveals to us that is the case here. And we understand why Valerie cannot tell Meg the truth. Meg, guided by disturbing dreams and clues to the past, must uncover the facts on her own.
I devoured this wonderfully quirky romp of a novel in one sitting, partly because Meg’s enchanting voice narrates Goodin’s tale and partly because of Goodin’s clever and witty turns of phrase guaranteed to elicit a laugh or three. Goodin also makes good use of her minor characters. When I think of the myriad ways in which Goodin could have written this novel, alternating the narrative among the points of view of Meg, Valerie, the family doctor, Meg’s boyfriend, the gardener, the gardener’s dog, and Valerie’s best friend, I think she made the best choice. Meg is an ideal narrator—likeable, relatable, charismatic, strong, and charming—and this reader ate her up.
One of the many strengths of In the Kitchen of Half Truth is the brilliant way in which Goodin weaves together memory and identity and shows how the two are closely intertwined. When Meg doesn’t remember part of her past, then she cannot know who she truly is. If she does not know where she has been, then she cannot know where she is going. At the end of the book you are sure Meg is going to have a whole different life. She’s stronger, happier, and ready to accept whatever life has in store for her.
Part mystery, part contemporary fiction, part daughter’s quest, From the Kitchen of Half Truth is for readers of The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard and Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer, two recent fiction releases that explore mothers and daughters and the bonds they share.
Throughout In the Kitchen of Half Truth, Goodin highlights the power of stories and of storytelling. Fiction, no matter how outlandish, holds enormous power over all of us. And that’s a good thing, nay, that’s a wonderful thing. Stories will never die as long as we keep them alive.
FROM THE KITCHEN OF HALF TRUTH – BLOG TOUR
April 1 – Luxury Reading
April 2 – Laura’s Reviews
April 4 – A Bookish Affair
April 5 – Mrs. Condit Reads Books
April 6 – Adventures of an Intrepid Reader
April 8 – Cocktails and Books
April 9 – Library of Clean Reads
April 10 - Broken Teepee
April 11 – Dew on the Kudzu
April 15 - Daystarz
April 16 – Chick Lit Plus
April 17 – Peeking Between the Pages
April 22 – Books and Needlepoint
April 23 – Write Meg
April 26 – Bookmagnet