By Bruce Jacobs

“The Cookbook Collector”
By Allegra Goodman
Dial Press ($26.00, 394 pp.)

It was only a decade ago when our country, no the whole world, was flying along in an economic fantasyland where kids just out of college (or never in college) were creating Internet and technology companies that other kids on Wall Street were taking public before the first dime of profit hit their bottom lines.  Money fell from the trees, McMansions with tricked-out kitchens and marble baths rose from the earth, and the stock market could go only to the sky.  Allegra Goodman’s new novel “The Cookbook Collector” illuminates those years between 1999 and 2002 with an engaging story of two quite different sisters and their boyfriends, colleagues, and families…their cars, clothes, and wines…their secrets and their strengths.

It is a pity that Goodman is damned by a jacket copy comparison to Jane Austen.  Is every woman who writes about sisters and their romantic and family entanglements doomed to the Austen tar brush?  Her solidly long narrative touches on all the nuance and complexity of contemporary American relationships, finances, and politics, but her portrait won’t be on the cover of Time Magazine any time soon.  Too bad.  This is a really good novel whose story and characters may drive our interest right to the end (even though we all know where those years ended), but whose insights into dreams and disappointment are equally compelling.

Emily Bach is the composed, efficient, math and science, Silicon Valley sister who founds Veritech, a database and internet security company on the verge of an IPO which will make her a gazillionaire.  She is also the watchdog for her younger sister Jess, a perpetual philosophy grad student at Berkeley living with two roommates and her vegan diet while handing out Save the Redwoods leaflets between part time hours at a used books store.  Their mother died young of breast cancer and their practical father in Massachusetts has remarried giving them two young step-sisters.  They are a bi-coastal family with tenuous ties…just like lots of families these days.

Emily is in a long engagement with a Boston entrepreneur whose tech company, like hers, is preparing for an IPO.  He is not the technical guy but the sales person who always says the right thing, plays sports to win, and dazzles the investment bankers.  They plan to marry and move in together after the market makes them rich enough to walk away from work.  Jess, the slightly crazy sister, has had a series of loser boyfriends, the latest being an older guy running a Save the Redwoods commune out of his house.  Emily scolds Jess for her poor choices in men and Jess thinks Emily’s Jonathan is a self-centered social climber.  As it turns out, both are right and neither will end up with her boyfriend.

Goodman fills this story with many other characters integrated into the lives of the two sisters and their men, but it is Jess’s bookstore boss who gradually becomes the central force of the novel.

George Friedman, single, almost forty, a Microsoft millionaire with a restored Maybeck house in the Berkeley hills owns Yorick’s Used and Rare Books, a store where customers are more rare than the books.  He is a collector, whether of the special books he covets and brings home from the store, or his antique typewriters, or his wine and cooking utensils, or the authentic furnishings of his house.  He has been hurt in the past by women, and so lives alone with his things and his cynicism.

Jess refuses to be intimidated by her older curmudgeonly boss, but when a local woman comes in the shop with a rare and pristine cookbook to sell, she too becomes entranced with the magic of beautiful objects.  Together they visit the woman’s house and discover her uncle’s incredible collection of cookbooks.  George wants desperately to buy them, but his gruff manner means only the sweet, kindly Jess can convince her to sell them to him.  Successful, they take the enormous collection to George’s house where he hires Jess to catalogue them.  He is infatuated with her more than with the books.  He cooks for her.  He serves her the best of his wine.  They fall in love.

I know…this is all so Jane Austen.  But it is the cookbook collection that Goodman uses to create the transformation in her characters, for Jess especially, “who had spent the past year struggling with Kant’s Critiques, [and] now luxuriated in language so concrete. Tudor cookbooks did not theorize, nor did they provide separate ingredient lists, or scientific cooking times or temperatures…Modern recipes were clean and bloodless by comparison…truss them, lard them, boil them quick and white. Incantatory, hortatory.  All verbs in the imperative…[the cookbooks] were, in and of themselves, an entirely new world.”  Through the cookbooks, Jess and George adapt to find their own new world.

The world did not end with the 9/11 tragedy, but one world did: the world where things of little value were valued beyond all reason; whether companies without products or profits, houses too gigantic for real needs, or lovers with only causes and ambitions to sustain them.  Goodman documents this collapse, but also the seeds of rebuilding.  Yes, she tells a love story and ends it with the lovers in each others’ arms, but she is too wary and wise to leave her ending too happy.  “The hammock swayed under them, and George and Jess floated together, although nothing lasted.  They held each other, although nothing stayed.”

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