Kay Rollison's Reviews > The Cookbook Collector

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman
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's review
Jun 03, 2011

really liked it

Published in 2010, this story takes place between the autumn of 1999 and the spring of 2002, which immediately gives the reader the broader context of events in Americaagainst which the action is set. The novel is about two sisters – calm, rational Emily, who is CEO of Veritech, a software start-up company that is about to go public, and ardent, trusting Jess, a graduate student in philosophy, an environmental activist and a part-time worker in a rare book shop. My mind went immediately to Eleanor and Marianne Dashwood, and while this is in no way a retelling of Sense and Sensibility, Goodman lists Jane Austen as one of her favourite writers, and I’m sure the nod in her direction is intentional. The novel has a number of themes, two of which, romance and money, are Austen’s central concerns, and the tone of the writing – gently ironic – also reminds me of Austen’s social comedy.

Emily is in love with Jonathan, the co-founder of another dot.com start-up,Isis. She is based inCalifornia, he inCambridge,Massachusetts, which naturally places a strain on their relationship. At what point should she give up her career and join him inCambridge? What does she really feel for him? And what is the nature of his commitment to her? Jess finds her boyfriends among the scruffy adherents of the Save the Trees movement, which exists to defend the Californian Redwoods against loggers. Are these attachments obstacles to true love, or are the other parts of her life the problem? I’ve made this sound more formulaic than it actually is, though if you keep your Austen in mind, you can probably guess the outcome for Jess. The outcome for Emily, however, covers rather different ground.

Once their companies are listed on the NASDAQ, everyone concerned is likely to find themselves seriously rich, at least on paper. Other characters, like George, the owner of the rare book shop, are already rich from an earlier technology boom. Jess is not very interested in possessions; her few shares lead her into finding out more about her dead mother’s family. But most other characters are very concerned about the rises and falls of the stock market, and about what having more money will mean for them. It’s a race, says Jonathan. ‘I’m not part of some demolition derby, trying to win at all costs’, says Emily. But the dynamics within and between companies started by friends change enormously when there are millions of dollars at stake; what price ethics and loyalty in a falling market?

And then there are the cookbooks of the title; the novel is also about collecting rare books. Initially Jess is sceptical about the value of this; she annoys George by asking him whether he likes owning books more than reading them. She thinks he is ‘like a snail, inside [his] own wealth’. But when he acquires a collection of rare cookbooks, she becomes entranced not only by the books and the recipes they contain, but also by the man who initially collected and annotated them. Cataloguing the collection opens up a new set of choices for her.

The book is much fuller and richer than I’ve indicated, because Goodman gives the characters so much self knowledge. Jess, for example reflects that in relation to romance, she ‘was a paper feminist, just as Emily was a paper millionaire.’ Is she right? It’s also clever, and words obviously matter to Goodman; one character looks as though he were ‘sharpening cruel ironic skewers and looking forward to running [another character] through’. And the discussion of the cookbooks, of which a collection like the one described actually exists, is scholarly and interesting. There is much to enjoy in this book.

I have reservations though. I can suspend disbelief in relation to the romance convention in which obstacles to true love are overcome, because as in Austen, the characters are well drawn, and their relationships convince. However the easy acceptance of wealth leaves me feeling a bit uneasy. This is no doubt unreasonable; since when did I object to Darcy’s riches, or Captain Wentworth’s fortune, or Colonel Brandon’s fine property? Perhaps I don’t like being reminded that the realities of wealth and poverty haven’t changed all that much since the early nineteenth century, however gently ironic their treatment.

Read this review at What Book to Read


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