Jennifer Close (Photo Credit: Michael Lionstar)
Jennifer Close (Photo Credit: Michael Lionstar)

A Review of Jennifer Close’s “Marrying the Ketchups”

A Family Drama in the Restaurant Biz

“Marrying the Ketchups” Book Cover

I must admit that I was attracted to this book by its title. What is “marrying the ketchups”? And does it lend itself towards possible sequels? (Marrying the Mustards, Marrying the Relishes?) It turns out, according to this novel, that the term “marrying the ketchups” refers to the process of turning an open half-empty ketchup bottle over on top of another open, partially empty ketchup bottle to create a brand new, full bottle of ketchup that restaurants can then place on its tables to show people that they always use fresh product. This is apt because this book is set in the restaurant industry in Chicago — and, yes, there are portions of this novel that will make your mouth water — particularly in the period after the Cubs won the World Series in 2016 and just after Trump won the U.S. Presidency. However, this isn’t a particularly political drama — even though it opens in a scene set at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D. C. Rather, if this book is about politics, it’s about family ones. The novel is set in a family-run restaurant called Sullivan’s and is told from the vantage point of three different grandchildren to restaurant owner Bud Sullivan, who dies at the outset of the book.

First, there’s Gretchen, who is 33 years old and is the singer in a successful wedding covers band in New York City. However, when she discovers her boyfriend and fellow bandmate is cheating on her, she ditches the band and retreats to Chicago to work at Sullivan’s. Then there’s Teddy, who works at Sullivan’s and is embroiled in a relationship with another guy man who has just dumped him, but the two still wind up having sex regularly as though nothing has happened. Finally, there’s Jane, who is married with two small children. She suspects her husband is cheating on her, as well, and their marriage is on the rocks. Throughout the novel, these characters grow and mature — which is a good thing, because, by the novel’s end, the family is faced with a shocking event featuring Teddy’s half-sister Riley that threatens to bring everyone apart, and it will take their mettle and resolve (and learnings) to keep things from falling to pieces.

Marrying the Ketchups reminded me of another family saga, Snowden Wright’s American Pop. The main difference though is that Jennifer Close’s work is much more conversational in tone. She has a distinct voice that she uses to move the story along, and this natural raconteur style will lead the reader to believe that she cares about these characters so much that she believes them to be real. That’s really the joy of this book: the writing style. It also doesn’t hurt that Close crafts believable characters. While Riley, in particular, can come off as being a bit one-note as the sullen teenager in the group, she is particularly believable as she tries to deal with the social strata at school that threatens to ostracize her. There’s a playful sense of humour in the read, too — Gretchen’s (ex-)boyfriend doesn’t keep a garbage can in his apartment, for instance — that makes Marrying the Ketchups an utter delight to read. All the characters who populate this book feel true to life, and you’ll be glad to get to know them and spend time with them.

In fact, there aren’t any major weaknesses to this book, per se. It’s not going to win the Pulitzer Prize for its outstanding literary writing, but it’s an enjoyable novel. It might have been nice to get to know Bud a little more, as he’s only present in the prologue and then dies, and the characters move on as though the family patriarch hasn’t journeyed from this life to the next. And since the story is told from the vantage point of Bud’s three grandchildren, it can be a little hard to remember who the parents are, as they only show up in the text from time to time. (There is a family tree at the start of the book to help readers make sense of the relationships between the characters, but the diagram is a bit hard to access on a Kindle, which is the device upon which I read this book, while in the middle of reading. This means it might make sense to purchase a physical copy, where you can more easily flip back to and refer to the chart as needed.) However, these are minor complaints.

At the end of the day, Marrying the Ketchups is a stellar book. It is both humourous and sad, playful yet touching, and should be the sort of easy read that might be best enjoyed at the beach on a warm, summer day. The book is a little open-ended, which always leads to the possibility of a follow-up novel, which would be very welcome as the characters are that fun to be around, even when they’re not on speaking terms with one another. More could have been written about the lives of the grandparents, living or dead, so prequel ideas also abound. While it remains to be seen if Marrying the Ketchups will lead to franchise opportunities (sorry for the restaurant business pun), it’s a really good read and should be savoured by all foodies and literary fiction readers alike. It has a bit of everything — some romance, some heartbreak, some pop culture, some potential recipe ideas — and is extremely flavourful. This is the type of book that you might read twice, so buying this book is a worthy investment. While it could have easily been longer and had more story about more of the secondary characters, and more words on the larger political climate that the book is set in, Marrying the Ketchups is quite the meal in a book, and you are guaranteed to enjoy this one. Dig in and bon appétit!

Jennifer Close’s Marrying the Ketchups will be published by Knopf on April 26, 2022.

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Zachary Houle

Zachary Houle

Book critic by night, technical writer by day. Follow me on Twitter @zachary_houle.