The stories of two sisters, who are as different from each other as they can be, are the threads that weave together this multi-themed novel about love, loss, and family ties. What makes The Cookbook Collector unusual is not that it follows several plotlines, but that the plotlines arelike the sistersso vastly different from each other. The fact that Goodman is able to tie them together is to her credit.
The chapters focusing on elder sister Emily, who is running a start-up tech company in Boston during the dot-com era, are fast-paced, mirroring Emily's high energy lifestyle and the rocket-fast rise of her data security business. Emily has lived a pressured life since the death of their mother when she and Jess were young, and has grown up practical, protective, and overly critical of Jess. Emily is financially successful now, but she and her steady and equally successful boyfriend, Jonathan, are so focused on their financial and entrepreneurial pursuits that emotionally they have too little to give to their relationship.
The sections focusing on Jess, a non-materialistic philosophy graduate student at Berkeley, have a more down-to-earth feel. But Jess, who works part-time in a used book store and volunteers for Save-The-Trees is not without her flaws; in fact, in her own way she is as self-absorbed as Emily - she cannot keep on top of her studies, cannot keep a dollar in her pocket and rarely gets to work on time. She has become involved with a man who doesn't love her, but is blind to the genuine feelings that George, her self-made millionaire boss, has developed for her.
For most of the novel, Emily and Jess both struggle to find what is meaningful in life, and it is clear that they are like two halves of a whole, each missing something important in their lives. Before things can improve for either sister, both must experience reversals of fortune, and Emily's lessons are the harshest.
There was some element of predictability to the story. Because we know the history of the last decade, we know that Emily's and Jonathan's companies will struggle when the 'dot-com bubble' bursts; and, when Emily decides to "prove" her love for Jonathan (or perhaps to test his love for her), by telling him the secret of her company's next big idea, it is a groan-aloud moment. Readers will also not be surprised that Jess eventually notices George. But Goodman still throws in a few surprises, and the sequence in which Jess's work on an old cookbook collection parallels her fall for George is brilliantly plotted.
The most sensuous scene in the novel is one in which George covertly leaves a lovely, but not-quite-ripe peach"its hue the color of an early sunrise"--on the table for Jess, who obsesses over it for three days until it is just right, and then eats it while George secretly watches her from the doorway:
" she washed his ripe fruit, and bit and broke the skin. An intense tang, the underside of velvet. Then flesh dissolved in a rush of nectar. Juice drenched her hand, and wet the inside of her wrist she licked the juice dripping down her arm."
With its well-developed characters and literary plot, The Cookbook Collector has been earning the praise of critics everywhere. Those who enjoy character-driven books about human nature, family, and the complexity of life will find it to be an enjoyable summer read.
About the Author
Allegra Goodman was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1967, but grew up in Honolulu where her parents taught at the University of Hawaii. Her first book, a collection of stories titled Total Immersion, was published in 1989 on the same day that she graduated magna cum laude from Harvard. While pursuing her Ph.D in English at Stanford, Goodman also wrote for The New Yorker and completed her second book of stories, The Family Markowitz, which quickly became a national bestseller. The Family Markowitz was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year for 1996 and was the fiction winner in the First Annual Salon Book Awards.
When her husband accepted a job at MIT, they moved back to Cambridge Mass, where they and their now four children still live. Her novels to date are: Kaaterskill Falls (1998), Paradise Park (2001), Intuition (2006), The Other Side of the Island (2008) and The Cookbook Collector (2010)
This review was originally published in August 2010, and has been updated for the July 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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