A stew of big issues and forgettable characters
Fall 1999. That’s the dateline at the beginning of Allegra Goodman’s new novel, “The Cookbook Collector,’’ and it tells us everything we need to know. We’re in for a trip back to the starry-eyed, dot-com days, gazing at a rainbow bubble about to burst. Then, more painful events will follow. How long does it take for a national tragedy to become a plot device? The going rate is less than a decade.
Sisters Emily and Jessamine Bach are East Coast transplants living out their respective California dreams. At 28, Emily is chief executive of Veritech, a data-storage start-up on the verge of its initial public offering of stock. Her obnoxious boyfriend, Jonathan, is a wunderkind heading up a data-security firm. He’s as brilliant at technology as he is at business. They’re the kind of bicoastal power couple rarely in the same place at the same time. They work hard to keep and protect other people’s data, crossing their fingers when it comes to their own relationship.
Jess, 23, is the family’s wild child. We know this because Emily wears pinstriped shirts and slacks and has neat, short hair, while Jess shops at used-clothing stores and lets her tresses grow long and messy. In the Bach family, rebellion means studying the humanities. Jess is working toward her doctorate in philosophy at Berkeley. Their father disapproves: It’s not practical. Their mother is dead, but she lives on through letters she wrote for each daughter to read on her birthday.
“Surely by now you are embarking on a profession,’’ says the one Jess has just received. “If you have not yet embarked, please do!’’ “ ‘Ahem,’ said Emily.
“ ‘I have embarked!’ Jess protested. ‘A doctoral program is embarking.’
“ ‘She means working.’ ’’
Jess spends her spare time handing out leaflets on behalf of Save the Trees and befriending oddballs. And she does have a job, at Yorick’s Used and Rare Books. The owner, George Friedman, made his money the old-school way — at
The author of previous novels such as “Kaaterskill Falls’’ and “Intuition,’’ Goodman has been compared often enough to Jane Austen, and there’s no reason to stop now. This book follows the sisters as they navigate livelihood and relationships, societal expectations and their own desires, learning who they are and how they want to live. Will Emily commit fully to Jonathan? Will Jess get in on Emily’s IPO, and where will she get the cash? Can the pursuit of money and the pursuit of happiness be squared?
And where on earth are the cookbooks?
They appear about halfway in, when George gets his hands on a trove of the antique volumes. They are rare and valuable, but what really make them interesting are the included notes, poems, and drawings of the original collector, an eccentric lichenologist. His paper clips have marred the pages with rust, which makes the books worth less. Or is it more? Again and again, “The Cookbook Collector’’ finds ways to ask what we should value in this world — love or money, things or feelings, poetry or programming, sense or sensibility.
It’s clear which side Goodman falls on. She is an intellectual and a sensualist. The book is at its most vivid when she is describing a perfectly ripe peach (“an intense tang, the underside of velvet’’), and the hunger the cookbooks awake in vegan Jess as she studies them. The book lovers, the activists, the eccentric minor characters come alive. The techies have less-successful start-ups. The sisters themselves are depicted in broad strokes, particularly Emily, who is already experiencing the tug between motherhood and tycoon-dom. “Now Emily felt the longing come over her. Brief but intense, a kind of homesickness, a desire to paint herself into Laura’s family.’’ Laura, her assistant, has several children and is expecting another. “Not so many pregnancies, or so much church, but could she have a bit of Laura’s lamp-lit home?’’
The conflict is real, but it’s as predictable as the coming crash. And when we learn early on that neither Jess nor George has a television, we see where things might be heading. Do they belong together? They’re two of a kind, after all — types, slightly complex types, but types nonetheless.
“The Cookbook Collector’’ is like the Obama Administration of novels, populated by highly educated, fairly well-off individuals. Its central figures experience internal conflict, but they don’t act contrary to character. They’re polite and generally well-meaning. They don’t embed themselves in your imagination or take on a life of their own in the way the best characters do.
They’re devices, and Goodman puts them to good use exploring larger themes. She does an admirable job weaving together cultural references and milieus: Berkeley, Silicon Valley, Cambridge, Judaism, activism, academia. When the book comes to a close in a mix of completely foreseeable and fairly improbable events, we may forget the characters, but we continue to reflect on the issues Goodman hangs on them.
Characters come and go, but big questions are eternal. Internet start-ups come and go, but books remain — physical, tangible artifacts. Those who love them are the rationalists in “The Cookbook Collector,’’ not the MBAs who tilt at dot-com windmills. One of the deepest connections in the novel is between books and their readers. This volume rings as a defense of volumes themselves, spine, cover, and page. And yet it’s available on Kindle.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.