The Kitchen Front: A Novel

Written by Jennifer Ryan
Review by Kristen McDermott

This warm hug of a novel, by the author of The Chilbury Ladies Choir, depicts the power of community in the face of war and deprivation. Set in the same rural region of southeast England in 1942, the story brings together four unlikely allies, widowed baker Audrey, her married-to-money sister Gwendoline, kitchen maid Nell, and ambitious London chef Zelda. These women are all accomplished cooks with painful pasts and compelling reasons to enter a local contest to become a co-presenter on “The Kitchen Front,” a BBC radio show that offers tips and recipes for home cooks struggling to feed their families on the strict wartime rations. The four competitors soon discover that their culinary and class-based rivalries might be more threatening to their happiness than the ravages of war.

Ryan creates four intriguing protagonists, although (as in her first novel) there’s not much to differentiate the voices of each woman. Despite their diverse personalities, they all have similar 21st-century voices, sounding more like contemporary self-help books than like actual 1940s British women. Their various heartaches and dilemmas intersect in ways that seem at times to be driven more by plot needs than by actual character motivation, but a compelling portrait of female community emerges if one can overlook the convenient rom-com plot twists. There are loads of recipes and well-researched details about home food production, which balance out the lack of characterization and the author’s tendency to tell rather than show, but the picture of small-town life she creates is an absorbing, comfortable read.