In the Kitchen by Monica Ali

Ali is a talented writer, working with a fascinating list of ingredients. But her final product is, quite simply, over seasoned and undercooked.

In the Kitchen

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Length: 448 pages
Author: Monica Ali
Price: $26.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-06

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.





12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.


Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.


Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."


David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.


On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.


Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.


Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.


Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."


How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.