Last week a customer presented me with a torn clipping from a newspaper and passionately told me she HAD to read this book! It was a review for The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman. Ok! I hadn’t read a word about this one yet, but she sure caught my attention. As a bookseller, I love to see readers as excited and determined to read a new book as I am to share my likewise enthusiasm over titles I am downright giddy over. As one book geek to another, it does not get much better.
I handed her a copy from the new fiction release bay. WOW! What a beautiful cover we both exclaimed at the same time. “Jinx,” I said jokingly to her. Smiling in thanks she was off as quickly as she had appeared, the whole encounter took less than three minutes. It is bookselling moments like these that make up for customers who do not know the name of the book, the author, or the subject. Only, that they saw it on a front display table three weeks ago and it has a blue cover. Oy! (Yes I am psychic. It comes with the job.)
As I read the cover flap, I said “WOW” out loud again. Allegra Goodman has been “heralded as ‘a modern-day Jane Austen’ by USA Today.” Daunting praise indeed. Within inside hollering distance was my assistant manager Andie, fellow Janeite, and Fanny Burney enthusiast. Andie is a discriminate reader who likes to challenge my passion for Jane Austen sequels and had an unhealthy reaction to her first Georgette Heyer novel. (I am slowing winning her over gentle readers after convincing her to read The Grand Sophy. She loved it. Phew. There’s hope.) As I read the cover blurb to her, she said “WOW” too. (Lots of “wow’s” going on here!) She must read it. One convert down.
Next in my mission of hawking the next Jane Austen’s book, I attack Cynthia, fellow bookseller extraordinaire whose excellent taste in reading is only subordinate to my own. I sell her on the two sisters theme; the older “serenely rational” and financially successful dot-com millionairess and the younger, impassioned and impulsive sibling who works as an antiquarian bookseller in Berzerkly. This hits close to home. Bingo. Two converts down.
Today, I find my next victim in my quest to convince all my fellow booksellers to read this book with me. While looking over the new hardcover bestsellers, Amber the amiable but ‘never read a Jane Austen novel in my life’ children’s lead innocently asks me “What should I read next?” Ha! “Where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given.” P&P. She reads the first chapter and identifies with the sister set-up too. Three down.
At this juncture, if you are in any doubt of my recommendation of this book, please read what the professional reviewers are saying about it.
“The Cookbook Collector” is a romantic comedy, regardless of its serious dot-com, ticker-tape subplot. That enchanting aspect comes from the adventures of Emily’s sister, Jess, the whimsical philosophy student, who eventually reasserts herself as our heroine. Yorick’s, the used-book store where she works, is owned by a single man in possession of a good fortune, so you should have a pretty clear idea of the universal truth we’re pursuing here. George is a retired Microsoft millionaire, a good-looking, 36-year-old curmudgeon who has given up on relationships. He’s “too selfish to marry anyone” anyhow, and he’s constantly complaining about Jess and her granola ideals.
Their prickly banter is a giveaway, but long after we’ve started rooting for them, Jess is still protesting, “We don’t agree on anything.” Can love bloom between a judgmental, uptight bachelor and a dreamy tree-hugger who won’t eat honey from “indentured bees”? Can these opposites finally overcome their pride and prejudice?
Admittedly, too much is going on in this novel. Although a liberal rabbi assures Jess that “there are no coincidences,” that gets harder and harder to believe as they pile up in these pages. And a final revelation of a long-lost family would make Gilbert and Sullivan blush.
(Ok. He had me at “a single man in possession of a good fortune,” but throw in a mention of Gilbert and Sullivan and I’m a goner.)
You’ve probably heard this story before: Responsible older sister and flighty, passionate younger sister search for love and fulfillment.
In fact, National Book Award finalist Allegra Goodman has called her new novel, The Cookbook Collector, a “ ‘Sense and Sensibility’ for the digital age.”
Now, one could argue that comparing your own work to Jane Austen’s is like waving a red petticoat in front of a Janeite. But frankly, those estimable souls are probably still too green around the gills from “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” to object strongly.
“The Cookbook Collector” remains a smart, witty treat – ideal for those who like a little intellectual oomph in their summer romances.
(Waving a red petticoat at a Janeite. *snort*)
If that flighty sister vs. level-headed sister premise sounds familiar, it should. Goodman herself has called her latest novel “A Sense and Sensibility for the Digital Age.” I confess, if anyone other than Allegra Goodman had made that claim, I very likely would have tossed my review copy away. I am very weary of the literary fad of contemporary authors shoplifting plots and characters from the 19th-century fiction warehouse. Poor Jane Austen, in particular, has been plucked clean. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out your local bookstore where you’ll find the latest violations, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Is there no shame?
(We hear you on the sea monster thing sister, but go easy on the plucked clean jabs.)
Goodman’s nimble language, usually displayed in her characters’ sharp readings of one another, is one of the great pleasures of her writing. The other is her ability to integrate serious metaphysical questions into her entertaining comedies of manners. The way in which The Cookbook Collector ultimately veers off from a mere riff on Sense and Sensibility raises crucial doubts about the value of a well-ordered life, as well as the existence of a benevolent God. In Austen’s original, Elinor, the practical one, was rewarded for having two feet on the ground. That was the late Enlightenment talking through Austen. But here, in Goodman, Modernity pulls the rug out from under Emily’s feet.
(We have always secretly wanted Marianne’s passions to prevail, so this could be a nice twist.)
You can read an excerpt of The Cookbook Collector on NPR and also listen to the six-minute radio broadcast on Fresh Air.
We shall keep you updated on the body count. You might be next!