[5 August 2009]
In the acknowledgments of In the Kitchen Monica Ali lists the many books she used to conduct research for her novel, including books on cooking, books on the textile industry, books on slavery, social psychology, and philosophy. The research she has done is entirely broad but not quite thorough. All the topics she mentions are featured in her novel, but one cannot help but wonder whether she would have done better if she had focused in greater depth on one subject rather the creating the kaleidoscopic work that she has.
Of course, all the pieces do have a place in the work. Gabriel Lightfoot is a successful chef in London running the kitchen at a prestigious hotel. His father, who is dying in the suburbs, worked in a textile mill his whole life, his staff is engaging in human trafficking of Eastern European immigrants, and Gabe has a nervous breakdown mid-novel when he becomes concerned that he has inherited his mother’s bi-polar disorder. But at the end of each day in Gabe’s life, there are simply too many pieces, both for the protagonist and the reader.
Ali does well to create a viable causal relationship between the chaotic forces in Gabe’s life, but fails to fully develop each, leaving her with a melting pot of high drama, improbability, and stunning one-liners. The domino-like devolution of Gabe’s life begins when the kitchen’s night porter is found dead in the basement, looking as though he fell while drinking. It is discovered that the porter was actually living in the basement, information that becomes an implicit testament to Gabe’s negligence as a manager. Gabe’s problem worsens when he finds a young, sickly Eastern European female staff member lingering in the porter’s illegal chambers.
He elects to bring her home with him, allegedly for her own protection. But the conniving and frightened woman, Lena, is a prostitute. Gabe swears to himself that his goal is protect her from the brutal life she has led, but it does not take him long to begin sexual relations. Gabe, who is in a very serious relationship with a beautiful and brilliant singer, has no idea why he sleeps with Lena.
Neither does the reader, and unless we can accept that a man’s brain really is trapped in his genitals, we never get an explanation for the long affair that ensues. Gabe convinces himself he loves Lena, but she is contemptuous, unkind, uninteresting, and clearly using him for money. Explanation number two is that men love sickly, skinny girls who can barely speak English and act like children.
In fact, there is something psychologically interesting about Gabe’s choosing this imp over his curvaceous, vivacious girlfriend, and he knows it. But neither he, nor Ali, nor her audience ever get the chance to think about it, because there are the rival concerns about whether Gabe’s true dream was to be a chef when he grew up, whether he can salvage a relationship with his aloof father before he dies, and whether he will be able to execute a plan to launch his own restaurant.
What grows out of this great effort is a quite choppy novel, with scenes that become disappointingly rhythmic verging on formulaic. Every conversation with each of the players in Gabe’s life follows the same pattern, and ends with some familiar variation on a theme. Gabe’s father always says something sage, grounded and helpful, although given that he has not had much of a relationship with his son prior to the timeframe of the novel, it is unclear why they suddenly have such an intimate relationship. He is dying, but anyone who has dealt with death knows that it does not magically improve relationships. Every conversation with Charlie ends with some cheerful, sexy, and wise witticism on her part. Every conversation with Gabe’s investors concludes with the same eerie, underlying tone of risk and threat.
On one hand, we see why Gabe has a nervous breakdown, but on the other, the growthless repetition is just boring. Each bit is exceedingly well written and entertaining, but they fail to come together on their own. We rarely have incentive to turn the page. The development of character and plot simply lacks traction.
Gabe’s behavior as the book unfolds is entirely insane and inappropriate, but Ali has not given the reader the tools with which to judge him. He is unlikable, irrational, and turns out probably not bipolar at all, just badly in need of few more hours of sleep. Gabe also never has much time in the book to repent or reflect, ruining his last chance to be a sympathetic character. The whirlwind nature of Gabe’s life, no doubt a deliberate choice by Ali, also lacks substantiation for its elements, preventing the reader from immersing in the story as she is too bogged down in trying to comprehend the trajectory of individual plot segments.
Ultimately, the most disappointing part about the book is its failure to reach its own potential. Ali is a talented writer, working with a fascinating list of ingredients. But her final product is, quite simply, over seasoned and undercooked.