The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

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The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

Goodman, Allegra. The Cookbook Collector. Dial Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0385340854 394 pp. $26

*****

Set in the late ’90s during the dot-com bubble, two very different motherless sisters are moving through their twenties. Emily is CEO of Veritech, an online security company, who gently urges her bohemian, grad student sister Jess to get her life together, but Jess is pretty happy dating a treehugger and working at a used bookstore. The owner of Yorick’s is a passionate book collector who made his money in computers early–he’s in love with Jess, and it’s Jess who helps him acquire a magnificent collection of historical cookbooks (George is also a foodie) from a woman who needs to sell her uncle’s collection.

The initial chapter is engaging–Emily has given Jess the paperwork to buy 100 shares of Veritech at the Friends & Family rate (at the cost of $1800, which is exorbitant for a student)–but overall, The Cookbook Collector is slow paced, covering years. Jess borrows from a rabbi involved in a cult-like Jewish sect, promising him return on investment, but sells when the stocks hit $33 (after rising to over $300/share) and donates the money to Save the Trees.

In some ways this is a coming of age novel, although there is (too?) much about other issues of adulthood: managing wealth and running businesses mixing in with navigating relationships and balancing passions.

A colleague pegged it as a “family saga” novel–I think of those as stretching out over generations in a single family, not as concerning themselves with multiple generations of people who have made themselves a sort of family, because of something that ties them together (in this case, it’s sort of the extended families both sisters have collected through their work), but your “family saga” description fits pretty well.

The point of view flows from Emily to her boyfriend Jonathan (another Internet tycoon) to Jess to George to other peripheral characters, like Emily’s oldest friend Orion who works with Jonathan and has a crush on Sorel, another programmer, in spite of living with his nurse girlfriend Molly, who he’s been seeing for 8 years, to Mel, Jonathan’s stressed, 57-year old head of HR… whew! I’d rather the author focused on fewer characters, because sometimes, but the time she comes back to a point of view, I was thinking, wait, who is Mel again? While I can see that the other characters are partially constructed to reveal things about Emily and Jess, I just wanted to know more about the sisters, who are both dating the wrong men and (maybe?) chasing the wrong things. Every time I felt like dropping it, the narrative came back around to Jess, and I was interested again. The ending is satisfactory, with loose ends coming together in a very satisfying way.

The Cookbook Collector doesn’t feel firmly entrenched in the turn of the millennium, in spite of the setting, until nearly the end – no music or fashion or cultural details really stood out to frame the book. Tons of allusions abound, making this an attractive read for book lovers. I don’t think the allusions are necessarily limiting–this is a literary book and doesn’t feel like it will go over the heads of younger readers when philosopher Jess whiles away hours at Yorick’s reading Millay and Whitman.

Librarians will appreciate her attempt to organize George’s acquisitions into categories, and later, her cataloging skills. I especially like how instead of a full book review of a cookbook, or a complete letter (the girls’ mother passed away from cancer when Emily was 10 and Jess 5, and has written letters to be opened on their birthdays), the reader gets but a key line or two, or a description of the ephemera within the pages of a book. And, I liked how I learned things without feeling smugness from the author (ever read The DaVinci Code? one of the things I HATE about that book is the authorial intrusion, that “most people didn’t know X, but LANDGON knew…”). For example, we learn the meaning behind the name of George’s bookstore through Jess’s completion of his bizarre application to work there, where she correctly answers the question about why the store is named Yorick’s.

In some places the writing moves from great to stellar; I love the descriptions of wine, when George has a dinner party with two other book collectors who may also be competing to determine the worth of the cookbook collection, They each bring a bottle of amazing vintage that reflects their personalities (pretty clever!):

“Nick’s Latour was a classic Bordeaux, perfumed with black currant and cedar, perfectly balanced, never overpowering, too genteel to call attention to itself, but too splendid to ignore. Raj’s Petrus, like Raj himself, more flamboyant, flashier, riper, ravishing the tongue. And then the Californian, which was in some ways richest, and in other most ethereal. George was sure the scent was eucalyptus in this Heitz, the flavor creamy with just a touch of mint, so that he could imagine the groves of silvery tress. The Heitz was smooth and silky, meltingly soft, perhaps best suited to George’s tournedos, seared outside succulent and pink within, juices running, mixing with the young potatoes and tangy green beans crisp enough to snap.”

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