To put it simply, this book had too many tragedies and not enough happiness or hope to balance them out. I’m all for realistic historical fiction, and I do realize that life on a plantation was probably extremely hard compared to living in modern times. But in order to truly capture my heart, a story has to have something to balance out the sadness. I read a few reviews that compared The Kitchen House to Gone with the Wind. Kathleen Grissom’s novel takes place on a plantation in the old south. It’s an epic tale that takes the heroine from a young girl to a young woman. But apart from that I can’t really see many similarities. There were some tragedies in Gone with the Wind. Homes were destroyed and lives were lost, but Gone with the Wind had something that The Kitchen House is definitely missing: a main character with some spunk! Yes, Scarlett is a rascal and she does some despicable things, but at least she’s interesting. The reader can’t wait to see what audacious thing Scarlett will do next. The reader roots for Scarlett because she doesn’t let anything bring her down. Lavinia, on the other hand, is so meek, so mousy, no naïve. She’s has all Melanie Hamilton’s sweetness but none of Melanie’s nobility. I kept waiting for Lavinia to finally stand up for herself, or at least for her loved ones, and I never felt like I got that satisfaction. In fact, Lavinia didn’t seem to grow as a character very much at all. Even when she attempted to do something heroic, it fell flat. She failed.
The members of my book club and I were talking about whether or not we cried when we were reading the book, and I thought it was interesting that two of us only cried when Baby Henry died. At first I thought maybe it was because he was a baby and the two of us are mothers of toddlers. Then I remembered that Henry wasn’t the only baby that died. Why then did that death affect the two of us while the others did not? It could be that the way Grissom wrote that death was more moving, and I believe that was a contributing factor. But I think it was mostly because that was the first death. After that it seemed there was death around every corner. My friend and I would text each other in the middle of reading, “Enough with the dying already!!” I became desensitized very quickly, and that’s very sad because there were several characters that had the potential to really capture my heart.
This book was like The Help in that it described the oppression of both women and people who are black. Like The Help, The Kitchen House also depicted a close relationship between a family and the people who serve them, but I cared about the characters in The Help so much more. I hurt for them when they hurt. The injustices that afflicted them felt as if they were happening to someone I truly cared for. In The Kitchen House, Grissom spent so much time jumping from one tragedy to the next; I never had the chance to really care about her characters. I didn’t know them well enough to be invested in their fate, and I didn’t even want to get attached to them because most of the characters were dropping like flies!
I loved the interaction between Mama Mae, Papa George, and their children. The few moments of celebration and happiness were wonderful to read, but as I said there weren’t enough of those moments to make the tragedies bearable. (Not. Even. Close.) I thought the dynamic between Lavinia and Will was very promising at first. I loved the way that he teased her as a young girl. But I felt that relationship fell flat later in the story. The only reason I wanted Lavinia to be with Will was because he was way better than any other alternative. Will was a nice guy, but there was no real chemistry between him and the adult Lavinia. He was simply the only nice guy available.
The author made one choice that I really admired. She wrote the story from the perspectives of two characters, and while Lavinia’s passages were long and detailed, Belle’s were very short and to the point. I have never seen this before in a book with multiple perspectives, and I thought it was very clever. The length and detail of the passages really emphasized the difference between the two narrators.
I would not recommend this book to anyone unless I knew that she loved stories about plantations or that she relished a tragic story. Maybe there are those that can keep up the sensitivity and be affected by each and every death and downfall. I could not. Having said that, I wouldn’t be opposed to reading another book by this author when she publishes again. I would, however, check the reviews very carefully first. Grissom’s style is quite pleasing, but the content too full of death and sadness for my taste.