THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR by Allegra Goodman

Book Quote:

“He asked me to keep everything,” Sandra said.

George wasn’t listening. “Do you see this? A paper clip!” The silver wire clipped several scraps of paper to a recipe for petites meringues a l’ananas. George pulled it off, and showed Sandra the rusty impression left behind. “This is criminal.”

Book Review:

Review by Lynn Harnett (AUG 21, 2010)

One of Goodman’s favorite authors is Jane Austen and it shows in her subtle, wryly witty social comedies. This latest takes place on both coasts between 1999 and 2002 and centers on two California sisters: responsible, ambitious, principled Emily and flighty, vegan, philosophical Jess. The title character, though deceased, plays a beguiling role in the plot.

The major part of the action takes place in and around Berkeley. Emily, 28, has founded an up-and-coming dot-com company. Jess, at 23, is floundering in grad school, majoring in philosophy, working in an antiquarian bookstore, taking Incompletes in her courses. She’s also very caught up in Save the Trees, though she has a phobia of heights and can’t participate in any of the redwood occupying.

Their mother died when Emily was 10 and Jess 5, and left letters for each of them to open on their birthdays, up to age 25. Emily treasures her letters but Jess, who barely remembers her, had read them all on her twelfth birthday and found them wanting. Still, passages from the letters sprinkle the narrative. Their long-departed mother had high hopes for them and much advice. Emily worries that Jess has not found the “profession” her mother hoped she would; Jess counters with barbs about Emily’s high-energy boyfriend, Jonathan, another ambitious dot-com founder who lives in Boston and seldom sees Emily.

“’Find someone musical,’ Jess quoted, for she was not above citing Gillian’s letters in a pinch, and she knew Jonathan could not carry a tune. ‘Find someone giving. Find someone who will sacrifice for you.’ “

Emily and Jonathan both have imminent IPOs. All the young techies are giddy with prospects of immense wealth. On a trip to see Jonathan, Emily, worried that her love isn’t enough, impulsively decides to share a company secret. “She would prove herself to herself. Satisfy his curiosity and confide in him, share her work, her life, her most secret joy.”

Jonathan, when Emily demands a similar confidence, lies. And thereafter, he struggles mightily not to seize her new secret for his own company. Will his better instincts win out? The reader suspects not. The reader also knows the bubble is about to burst – even the dot-commers have some inkling – and our omniscience contributes to the suspense. Will they get rich? Will it all come to nothing? Goodman is good enough to make us care.

Meanwhile Jess can barely be bothered to scrape up the money required to get in on Emily’s IPO. She shows up late for work at the bookstore and scares customers away with her strong opinions. But George, the proprietor, a 41-year-old retired Microsoft multimillionaire, can’t keep his eyes off her, despite her infuriating habits and greasy boyfriend from Save the Trees. His wit is dry. “ ‘Three months,’ George said as he was locking up. ‘I didn’t realize Save the Trees had been around that long.’ “

George has never married, though he insists he wants to. His girlfriends say he refuses to commit; George says he hasn’t found the right person. The bookstore is more a hobby than a business, though he can be cutthroat where sales and acquisitions are concerned. George is also a bit of a curmudgeon. He has eschewed the technology that made him rich and is known to fulminate about the end of Western Civilization. He hits his hectoring stride while on a jog with a friend, who picks up the pace, “hoping to outrun George’s rant.”

“ ‘What was it Jess said today?…’ George panted, trying to keep up. ‘Ruskin is a dogmatic, self-indulgent, sexually repressed misogynist with an edifice complex.’

Nick smiled. ‘Sounds just like you.’ “

The manic excitement of the dot-com frenzy contrasts with George’s deliberate preservation of the past. Chips and get-rich-quick schemes versus venerable books and timeless architecture. Jess finds both worlds materialistic and does her best to stay destitute while longing for the peace of mind lack of debt can confer.

The cookbook collector comes into the narrative haltingly, a book at a time. When the collector’s niece finally admits George to the collection, Jess finds herself entranced as well, as much by the notes and drawings interleaved with the recipes as the gorgeous, worn books themselves. Once George gets over his horror at the desecration, he too finds himself curious about the collector, a man with whose obsession he can identify.

There are a lot of secondary characters –including a couple of Hasidic rabbis – and Goodman involves us in each of the subplots they inspire (although the bookshop always beckons). Even the characters we don’t much like – or at least disapprove of – come to life on the page. One of the Austen-like things she does is to allow her characters to gently thwart our hopes through willfulness, misunderstanding, timidity, occasionally even by accident or fate. But they grow and learn. Jess, researching the cookbooks, looks at her mother’s letters with new eyes. “What was it about them? What was it she had overlooked before? Their secrecy. The obliqueness of the language drew her in, where before it had confused and bored her.”

The writing is unflaggingly delightful, and Goodman doesn’t let wit stand in the way of weighty issues. Among the ponderables are values, ethics and the meaning of life – or at least the meaning of how we choose to live. A wonderful novel, with all its plots resolved, some in ways that won’t please everyone. Readers of Goodman’s other novels will love this one and fans of Cathleen Schine, Helen Simonson, Marian Keyes, or Penelope Lively should enjoy it as well.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 125 readers
PUBLISHER: The Dial Press; 1 edition (July 6, 2010)
REVIEWER: Lynn Harnett
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Allegra Goodman
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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Bibliography:


August 21, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, California

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