The Cookbook Collector is the story of two sisters – one brainy and analytical, one free-spirited and passionate – and the choices they make in men and in life. Does that sound like something Jane Austen might have written? Actually I think she did.
But Allegra Goodman isn't just copying an old formula. Her two sisters are very much grounded in the recent past – specifically, between 1999 and 2002, a time of several historic events which are smoothly woven into the story. Older sister Emily, an MIT grad, is an executive at a Silicon Valley start-up in the time of NASDAQ euphoria. Younger sister Jessamyn is a grad student in philosophy at Cal, works at a sort of vanity rare book store in Berkeley run by a Microsoft millionaire, and devotes her passions to a Save The Redwoods group and its charismatic leader. There are lots of ways to get trite and predictable with material like this, and Goodman avoids them all.
Just as she did in her previous book “Intuition” (see my blog), Goodman takes us inside disparate worlds. The constant scrambling in tech companies to attract funding for their latest ideas felt authentic, and as someone who has spent hours debugging code, I can attest that her description of an all-night code-crunching session rang true. She makes the esoteric world of antique book restoration and collecting seem fascinating, especially the amusing sub-plot about an unusual collection of cookbooks.
But the book is essentially about relationships, between friends, lovers, parents, children, and siblings. Goodman juggles a lot of plot lines, and some are better fleshed out than others, but once again I admired her ability to amuse and entertain me with a page-turning story.
PS Goodman should have done a little more research on Bay Area geography. Heading north to Arcata from Berkeley does not involve crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, but one of her characters does just that.