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The Kitchen Front    by Jennifer Ryan order for
Kitchen Front
by Jennifer Ryan
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2021 (2021)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Jennifer Ryan, author of the delightful historicals, The Chilbury Ladies' Choir and The Spies of Shilling Lane, now brings us another compelling World War II novel focused on women in wartime, The Kitchen Front.

The Kitchen Front BBC radio program was established to help housewives cook nutritious and appetizing meals, given wartime food rationing (many of its recipes are included in this novel). In June, 1942, the program sets up a wartime cooking competition, to be judged by program presenter Ambrose Hart. The winner will get to join the program as a 'woman's voice'. Readers are introduced to four very different women, each desperate to win for their own reason. The novel alternates between their points of view.

The most immediately likeable is Audrey Landon, a young widow with three boys. Still mourning her husband Matthew, whose plane was shot down over France, she looks after a pig, hens and vegetable garden. She uses the produce to make and sell baked goods locally in order to make ends meet. After the bank threatened to repossess her home, she sought help from her estranged younger sister, Gwendoline. Lady Strickland married money and revels in her position. The Stricklands did offer a loan, with crippling weekly repayments.

Gwendoline was always jealous of Audrey, their mother's favorite. Her privileged life looks good on the surface but cracks soon show. Her husband is abusive and controlling, only caring that she present the right image to the world. Gradually, Gwendoline begins to long for escape. Her shy fourteen-year-old kitchen maid Nell grew up in an orphanage and lacks confidence, though she is supported by the elderly cook, Mrs. Quince. Gwendoline orders them to enter the contest, sure they will let her win. Nell wants more from life than cooking, cleaning and obedience, especially after she falls for an Italian POW.

Finally, we meet trained London chef Zelda Dupont. Circumstances have forced her to cook for factory women, who want only plain food, and soon she even loses that position. Zelda is desperate to prove herself in a world long dominated by men, and to get back to a real chef's job. When Audrey is forced to house Zelda by the billeting officer, they dislike each other intensely at first. Very slowly, the four competitors come together as friends, not rivals. They help each other to a wonderfully satisfying conclusion, bringing new beginnings out of the ashes of war. The Kitchen Front is a real feel-good read, just what we need in dark times.

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