Author Jennifer Ryan‘s name will be familiar to WPL customers as her two previous novels were hot picks for local book clubs – both The Spies of Shilling Lane and The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir were warmly received and hit bestseller status – and they continue to be choices that will appeal to any reader who would like a heartwarming picture of British village life during wartime. Any news that she had a new book on the way would have been welcoming but when it trickled out that this plot would involve a BBC sponsored baking competition, I could not reach the holds button on the WPL catalogue fast enough!
The Kitchen Front begins with a printed list of wartime rations permitted to one adult for a week (with explicit details like “meat to the value of one shilling and one tuppence”) before she introduces Audrey Landon, a 40-year-old mother of three ragtag boys. Audrey is parenting them, caring for their dilapidated Fenley Village farmhouse, and trying to start a small catering business all while mourning the loss of her husband Matthew. Through this cozy family we learn a bit about her younger sister, Lady Gwendoline Strickland, who chose to marry for prestige (rather than love, as Audrey had) and seems to take every opportunity to be cruel to her less fortunate relatives while reveling in her own wealth. Lady Gwendoline employs one of the best cooks in the area, Mrs. Quince, who is assisted in the kitchen and throughout the manor by a young kitchen maid, mousy 19-year-old Nell Brown. The fourth woman to be introduced, and the final contestant in their eventual contest, is a Cordon-Bleu-trained chef, 30-year-old Zelda Dupont, who is trying desperately to stay employed as a cook in a local pie factory while hiding her unwanted pregnancy. Each woman is the subject of alternating chapters but their lives overlap as they all live and work in the same small village.
Their lives become even more closely intertwined when a BBC presenter, the polka-dot bow-tie-wearing Ambrose Hall, is given the task of holding a local contest to find a female co-presenter to assist him in hosting his radio program named “The Kitchen Front”. He invites the four women to his home to learn more about the plans for the competition and lets them know that, despite the constraints of wartime rations he expects them to display an ingenious use of ingredients and be able to speak well in front of the audience. Ambrose sets himself up as the judge of the three rounds – with the first being a starter, the second a main course, and the third a desert course, with points given out of ten.
Each woman leaves that first meeting with different levels of confidence in their success (Lady Gwendoline is scheming a tiny bit, there’s a spoiler for you) but if you are getting Great British Baking Show vibes, they are deserved because as each woman works through their planning for the three rounds it’s almost as good as watching the show. You will root for your favourite characters just as you might have when you enjoyed watching a favourite season. Each woman has solid reasons to want the role of presenter and it’s hard not to wish that the BBC executives could award a first prize to all of them. Their personalities and friendships become only more endearing as we learn more about them and become more dazzled by their cooking and baking – a snack will likely be required while you read this novel.
Jennifer Ryan has included recipes in many of the chapters (and you can find more on her website) for many of the meals that the women create, but some are described so accurately that you could recreate them without a list. In one early chapter, when Audrey is scrambling to find ingredients that will suit, she creates something so lovely and fragrant that it just might inspire a trip to your local store so that you can give it a try. They all have a chance to shine in their kitchens with stories that make the novel well-balanced and exactly the thing to read on a blustery March afternoon.
It would be easy to suggest that this novel is just about food because it centres around a wartime cooking competition, but the author has put effort into her research to ensure that her representation of the life of British people during WWII is accurate and the feeling of immersion in the cavernous kitchen of a manor house or bountiful kitchen garden is delightful. The connections between their cooking competition and The Great British Baking Show are obvious with their search for the perfect bake, but I am certain every reader will be more than satisfied by the “showstopper” at the end of this novel.
— Penny M.