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I read this book after hearing a review about it featured on NPR. Were it not for my seeing the overall reader review lower than I could have imagined, I might not have felt compelled to write a review.
the cookbook collector
The book is not perfect and there were some facets that were not quite believable. However, I found this a fascinating story of self discovery, personal growth, sibling dysfunctional relationships, love and loss, and learning to love through research of and cataloging an eccentric's collection of cook books through the ages. Well worth reading for the beauty of the prose.
This book opens up with some promise, then jerks the promise away quite early, sets you up for the most awful reading experience in your life, makes a dictionary a far better read. I wouldn't recommend this book to my enemies. Definitely not reading for pleasure, more like self-imposed torture. Well, you get the idea, don't waste your money, I suspect there will be a huge amount of them at Goodwill and used bookstores if you don't believe my review.
Book Club Cheerleader
A Fine Vintage
Most families have their pigeonholes and identities. Coming from a family of three girls, I know first-hand about family roles and labels. My oldest sister, Linda, was “The Smart One”; my middle sister, Sheri, was definitely “The Pretty One”; so as the baby, I had to do something to get everyone’s attention (albeit not enough to get any pictures in the family photo album) so I became “The Funny One.” In Allegra Goodman’s sixth novel, The Cookbook Collector, the two sisters, Jess and Emily Bach are defined as “The Creative One” (read “flighty” “irresponsible” and “granola-natural”) versus “The Responsible One” (read “solid”, “grounded” and “practical”) respectively.
So, while Emily is cast as a heavy Cabernet Sauvignon with gripping maturity, Jess is more like a fresh summery Sauvignon Blanc. But, both sisters are a fine vintage you will want to spend your time sipping and savoring. This is the perpetual Jungian struggle and in this case, as in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility,, the contrast provides much of the comedic tension in a wonderful tale of love and fortunes won and lost. We sense much sisterly affection along with some slight competition:
”’I’m taking the Berkeley, Locke, Hume seminar, and logic and philosophy of language…’Jess paused to sip her mango lassi. ’And working and leafleting …for Save the Trees. And I’m also taking Latin. I think I might be as busy as you.’ Emily laughed. ‘No.’ She was five years older and five times busier. While Jess studies philosophy at Cal, Emily was CEO of a major data-storage start-up.”
Like Austen, Goodman has an excellent grasp of personality types and the human psyche, and clearly captures the personal emotions of pain, loss and love. But combine that with a Dickenesque ability to build quirky characters and weave them into the plot in surprising ways—and, well, you’ll just have to read this romp to find out how it all ends. (Although I will warn you that the author cheats a bit at the end and pulls a ‘Wilde’ hare out of her hat reminiscent of The Importance of Being Earnest. But it is so skillfully done, that we quickly forgive this amusing trick.)
This story is part fairytale and part a cynical treatise a la Wall Street on the temptations of greed and ambition. Set in 1999 amidst the heady pre-dot.com bubble, and continuing through the fall of the Nasdaq—followed by the twin towers—Goodman takes us on a rollercoaster ride along with the dramatic stock market dips and dives. But hearts beat along with the ticker tape, and what could’ve been a depressing story of doom and gloom—come on, we all know what’s coming—is actually an optimistic story of love and hope.
Combine the industries of computer software, education, religion, antiquarian books, education, and environmental charities—and you have a pretty interesting mix of work settings—all well-researched by Goodman. It reminded me of an irreverent bumper sticker one of my friends drove around with for years, “Nuke the Gay Whales for Jesus.” But the various viewpoints, instead of causing confusion—like the aforementioned bumper sticker—provide a story of rich perspectives, competing motives, and an interesting study in contrasts.
In addition to contrasts, Goodman has a good time playing with ironies—we can almost see her at her keyboard with her tongue firmly attached to her cheek. First there’s Jess’s tree hugging activities, which contrast with her actual job which is selling books—a product which requires pulverizing those same trees in order to be printed. Then she writes of Emily and Jonathan’s relationship which seemed to be fueled by their individual success as CE-somethings of competing software companies—the same companies that required that they live 3,000 miles away from each other. Also, I wondered at some point if their relationship was based more on the excitement their companies’ IPO were providing than they contributed to themselves. Finally, we read the plethora of letters Emily and Jess’s late mother wrote to her daughters—one to be opened on each of their birthdays until age twenty-five—which would indicate a strong desire to communicate with her little darlings, while meanwhile conspiring with her father to keep them in the dark about significant family secrets.
Like a fine wine maker building complexities into her vintage, the book deals with the struggle for balance: Work and Home life, Trust and Doubt, Getting and Spending, Ideas and Ideals, and the value of the Material versus the Immaterial. Additional themes include the Morality of both businesses and non-profits; Finding Meaning and Identity; and heady Appetites for Love, Sex, God, Money, Food and, of course, Fine Wine.
Goodman’s full-bodied characters are as satisfying as the buttery California chardonnays they sip.
Jess is a perpetual student working on chalking up some more ‘incompletes’ on her doctoral degree in Philosophy. At 23, she also works part-time at Yorick’s Rare and Used Books, part-time leafleting for Save the Trees, and part-time charming the leaders of both. She has an optimistic approach to life. After getting drenched in a rainstorm she tells her sister, “I’m hydrating.” At another point, Goodman writes, “She had a theory about everything, but her ideas changed day to day. It was hard for Emily to remember whether her sister was primarily feminist or environmentalist, vegan or vegetarian. Did she eat fish, or nothing with a face?”
Jonathan is the least likable character—as bloated as his company’s stock price. Although we know his back story and admire his persistence, we never fully trust—or like him. We don’t dislike him for who he is, it’s just that we’re disappointed because he could be so much more. The only time the story lags is when Goodman spends too much time on the East Coast with ISIS, Jonathan and his cohorts there. But just as you begin to miss California—and the sisters—Goodman switches us back to the main event—and we find the absence has made us grow fonder—if that’s possible.
To mix Austenian metaphors, George, the owner of the antiquarian book store, is our Mr. Darcy. Goodman gives us a succinct bio on him:
“He was old money, a Microsoft millionaire now returned to Berkeley where he’d gone to college in the seventies, majoring in physics with a minor in psychotropics…George retired, traveled, and donated to worthy cause. But he was eccentric as well. He was a reader, and autodidact with such a love for Great Books that he scarcely passed anymore for a Berkeley liberal. Previously anti-war, at thirty-nine his new concern was privacy. He grew suspicious—his friends said paranoid—of technology, and refused to use e-mail or cell phones. He…boycotted the very products with which he made his fortune, and called Microsoft the Evil Empire, although he still owned stock. In the eye of the internet storm, George sought the treasures of the predigital age.”
Cookbook feels like historical fiction not only due to the Dickensian, Austenesque and magical fable-like qualities, but also the sharp details Goodman uses to conjure a world—though only a decade ago—markedly different from today including: dial-up connections, economic confidence, and Republicans in office. Her tone remains optimistic amidst tragedy, loss and disappointments: “Sometimes sadder, sometimes wiser, laid off programmers returned to graduate school to finish their degrees, or joined The Peace Corps, or scrambled for money to start new companies, as seedling grow in rings around a redwood struck by lightning.”
Like a fine wine, I predict this delectable book club selection will hold up over time. With notes of hope, faith and love, The Cookbook Collector is sure to satisfy discriminating palates. With upfront characters, and realistic optimism, it is a well-balanced combination of sweet and sour with a lasting finish. Yes, 2010 looks like a good vintage for Goodman.