Marrying the Ketchups by Jennifer Close
Published by Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date: April 26, 2022
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Contemporary
After my frank opinions in the May recap let’s start June off with some breezy family drama, shall we? Marrying the Ketchups by Jennifer Close is the story of the Sullivans, a restaurant-owning family in Chicago’s Oak Park neighborhood. The novel is cemented in place at the volatile end of 2016, when the Cubs win their first World Series in 100 years and America’s political infrastructure is demolished by the election of a divisive, vulgar president. On a more personal level, Bud Sullivan, the family’s beloved patriarch dies suddenly. Three of his grandchildren converge at the restaurant to make sense of a world that feels as if it’s been knocked off its access.
Gretchen is the family’s artist. A singer, she’s been in a 90s cover band since she was in college, but brushes with fame have devolved into playing the wedding/bar mitzvah circuit. The itinerant lifestyle and now, a betrayal have made the choice easy for Gretchen to head home to Chicago. But what to do when the only lines on her resume are singer and waitress? Going back to work at JP Sullivans and living in the apartment above the restaurant is the easy answer, but what was charming in her twenties, feels decidedly less so in her mid-30s.
Jane is the quintessential big sister who’s done everything right or at the very least tried to do everything right. Married with two children her family her only misstep has been leaving Oak Park for one of Chicago’s more affluent neighborhoods. A neighborhood complacent about the election because it wouldn’t impact them. When her husband says the same thing Jane begins to wonder about her choices. Her job managing the restaurant’s payroll begins to feel more like a haven than a workplace as she struggles to find herself.
For their cousin Teddy, stepping in to help with Sullivans is a no-brainer. He’s worked in restaurants his whole life, most recently as the general manager of a large upscale restaurant in Chicago. He’s perfectly suited to take over as manager, but no one else seems to recognize this. Especially not his Uncle Charlie who won’t listen to any of his input. To make matters worse, his personal life is starting to crowd into his work. The man who broke up with him is suddenly showing up for lunches and making overtures to get back together. It all comes together to leave Teddy at loose ends—wanting to be needed, but by the right people.
None of the characters in Marrying the Ketchups are happily settled into their lives. I’ve even seen reviews saying they’re unlikable, but if they’re not at their best it’s because they’re trying to come unstuck in their lives. Gretchen, Jane, and Teddy may be struggling or unhappy, but they’re also warm, funny, and real. I will always take that over likable, especially when there is something relatable in each of their lives.
This is not a heartwarming story of a family lovingly trying to regroup after a death. Marrying the Ketchups is a slice of the more realistic aspects of life that come with aging out of dreams, fumbling at love, family dynamics, and being an adult (what does that even mean anymore?!). Not to mention all the existential dread that surfaced with the previous presidential administration. This could make for dour (or depressing) reading, but Close does a marvelous job with subversive humor, her characters saying out loud what many of us think. I recognized and thoroughly enjoyed this dysfunctional family as they maneuvered through their messy, chaotic lives.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Knopf in exchange for an honest review.*