Monday, November 29, 2010

The Cookbook Collector

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman (NY: Dial Press, 2010).

This is not necessarily a novel for cooks or cookbook browsers, though they might well enjoy it. Rather, it follows the lives and loves of two sisters in California during the late 1990s through the early twenty-first century as they deal with issues both great and small. The older sister, Emily, is a Silicon Valley CEO leading her company into a major IPO who is involved in a bicoastal relationship with another dot com mover and shaker. While Emily is resolutely moral in her approach to business, her partner seems less so. The younger sister, Jessamine or Jess, is a philosophy graduate student at Berkeley heavily involved in ecological activism and thence with the leader of a tree-saving organization. Jess works at an antiquarian bookstore whose owner, George, is himself a former Microsoft employee, now leading a highly privileged life.

The eponymous cookbook collector is the dead uncle of a woman who needs to sell the collection. George immediately desires the collection and manages to purchase it, so Jess ends up cataloging it and becoming more and more intrigued with the significance of the collection and the mysterious collector.

Goodman masterfully develops the themes and symbols associated with collecting, food, activism, and greed, while also creating a vivid and romantic tale of two sisters. This novel has been compared to Austen, but I found it focused too exteriorly for that, yet when one considers that Austen's world was much more domestically centered than ours, the comparison becomes more apt. In any event, this is an excellent novel, wonderfully readable, and highly recommended.

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