The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman – A Review

As a Janeite, it is impossible ignore the siren call when an author announces to the book buying world that her new novel The Cookbook Collector is “a Sense and Sensibility for the digital age. Whoa! My first reaction was “this is literary suicide.” Why would anyone want to equate themselves to a beacon of world literature such as JANE AUSTEN?

It is impossible to know her personal motivations, but after a bit of online research, I can’t entirely blame Allegra Goodman for starting this avalanche. She seems to be the darling of the literary world ready to be embraced as “a modern day Jane Austen.” Booklist, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus all gave her starred reviews, and even those highbrow literary bluestockings The Washington Post and the New York Times beamed. Swept up in the momentum of online praise I succumbed to the unthinkable. I imagined, no, dare I say I hoped, “as I had scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before” that my favorite author could be reincarnated in the modern day world and I could continue to read new works infused with Austen’s style, deft observations and biting wit.

I will attempt to disarm reproof right up front. I read a lot of “popular” fiction written by women. Yep, that stuff that is sadly overlooked by the good folks at The New York Times. This book is technically classified as literature which is really out of my depth as a book reviewer, so I will review it through the prism of a Janeite. Set in northern California between 1999-2002 Goodman has mirrored elements in Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility including two sisters, Emily and Jessamine Bach, polar opposites in temperament and interests struggling with love, money and fulfillment in different ways.

Twenty-eight year old Emily is the sensible, pragmatic older sister who graduated from M.I.T. and is the co-founder and CEO of Veritech, a start-up computer data-storage company in the Silicon Valley on the brink of going public (obviously the Elinor Dashwood character). Jess is a twenty-three year old idealistic Berkeley graduate student in philosophy committed to saving the environment and rushing heart first into life and romance (yep, Marianne Dashwood). She works part-time at an antiquarian bookstore named Yorick’s owned by George Freidman (Colonel Brandon without the flannel waistcoat), a first generation Microsoft millionaire who retired early and now passionately collects, filling his life with beautiful objects instead of people. Pushing forty, George is handsome, haughty and cynical, “hard to please, and difficult to surprise.” He and Jess do not see eye-to-eye on much of anything and their conversations turn to sparing matches over books, her tree-hugging philosophies and looser boyfriends (Leon, the Willoughby character). She cherishes books for what they can teach you. He values books because others want them and they are his. “[H]ow sad, he thought, that desire found new objects but did not abate, that when it came to longing there was no end.

Emily has her own set of values and desires. She loves her high-tech job, money and power, and is continually postponing her wedding date to accommodate their consuming needs. She is in a bi-coastal relationship with Jonathan Tilghman fellow dot-com genius who is also in the start-up phase of his computer company in Cambridge, MA. She works long hours, dreams of marriage and children while her ambitions push her need to succeed over love. Emily has looked after her little sister Jess since their mother’s death from breast cancer thirteen years ago. Concerned over her finances Emily presses Jess to purchase her company’s family and friends stock offering for $1,800 telling her she must find the cash herself. Hesitant to tap her father for the funds, Jess connects with a local Bialystock rabbi she meets through a neighbor and secures a loan. He is altruistic, not expecting repayment claiming he is investing in her future and not to make money. On the first day of trading her sister becomes a multi-millionaire, but any of you who remember the roller-coaster stock market of the new millennium know where this story is going.

The narrative moseys along through chapters of dot-com start-up details veering off on tangents with characters we don’t really need to know and do not care about until about half way through when George happens upon the rare book dealers Holy Grail. A large and incredible unique collection of old cookbooks stashed in the kitchen cupboards of a deceased Berkeley professor of Lichenology whose heir promised him never to sell, but is hard up for cash. Jess assists in wooing the quirky owner with a bit of intuition and psychology which pleases George, who has a new collection to add to his collection, but what he really wants to possess is Jess!

Full of dot-com detail and an interesting juxtaposition of analytical verses intuitive personalities, my expectations for The Cookbook Collector were so high that half way through the book I needed to take stock and reassess. Like Austen, Goodman’s characters are genuine, quirky and endearingly flawed but she spent too many pages wavering away from the ones I wanted to know more about: Jessamine, Emily and the two men in their lives that I questioned where she was going and why this was important far too often. The most intriguing character hands down was Jessamine, and like Austen’s Marianne Dashwood she is whimsical, openhearted and trusting. You know that she is heading for a fall, but love her all the more for it. How Jess the tree-huger and George the dishy curmudgeon will eventually come together, and we do know from the start that they will, is as satisfying as a seven course meal at Auberge du Soleil.

The Cookbook Collector is a romantic comedy with some social reproof stirred in for spice. It is rewarding if you have the patience for a bit of sideways adventure in the shallow high-tech dot-com world of ambitious risk-takers with mega-millionaire dreams. Goodman’s prose can be lyrical, alluring and very seductive. Interwoven are great moments of tantalizing descriptions of food and wine. I will never think about eating a peach again without remembering Jess and George. There are some unexpected twists and far-fetched coincidences that added surprise and whimsy, but crowning Ms Goodman the next Jane Austen? “[E]very impulse of feeling should be guided by reason; and, in my opinion, exertion should always be in proportion to what is required.”

3 out of 5 Stars

The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman
Random House (2010)
Hardcover (394) pages
ISBN: 978-0385340854

© 2007 – 2010 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

14 thoughts on “The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman – A Review

  1. I’m currently reading this book and I have to agree with you! I had rather high expectations for this book. When I see the name “Jane Austen”, my eyes immediately light up and have (false) hopes that this book could actually equate to the literary joy and genius that Austen has brought me.

    However, I must give Goodman some credit for the darling character Jessamine. I have to say that I was slightly disappointed in Emily’s character. What do you think, Laurel?

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  2. Jess is delightful, but I also enjoyed Austen’s Marianne. Both are exasperating at times. If Goodman was truly mirroring Emily as Elinor, she did a good job. I appreciated Austen’s Elinor, but I am not fond of her. I relate more to Marianne – thus my affinity to Jess.

    What did you think of her pacing and the dot-com stuff? It was interesting, but should have been cut in half I think.

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    • I actually relate to both Marianne and Elinor- Marianne’s impetuous nature and Elinor’s sensibilities. Oh and yes, like I said, I do adore Jess. So much like Marianne.

      Well, I got lost in all that dot-com stuff and was pretty tempted to skim over them (partly because I’m such a techno-dunno). And yes, I definitely agree with you that there was too much information-technology!

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  3. Ooh… your review is kinder than mine would have been, Laurel Ann. =) I think the best part of the book are the passages extracted from the cook books and the cover… =D

    Would I have enjoyed this more if they had not put the mantle of Jane Austen on Goodman? Perhaps my expectations would not have been too high, but I dare say I would not have picked it up. ;-)

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    • *snort* “best part of the book are the passages extracted from the cook books and the cover.”

      Ouch!

      LOL Joanna, in comparison, you make my complaints sound like praise!

      The cover is beautiful. I am sure Ms. Goodman appreciates your complement, even though she had nothing to do with its creation and is vaguely connected to the story! :0

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  4. Sounds interesting but you lost me at mega millionaire dreams and dot com. Sounds like a good book I just would rather live in a time warp and stick to 200 years ago things are more complex in society but let complex mechanically or maybe the word would be technologically. Thanks so much for reviewing it.

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  5. Do you think that once publishers get any allusions, to any degree, to the incomparable Jane Austen that they are then eager to slap the Austen comparisons on? Publishers are well aware the selling power of that name. I am always floored when the big name literary reviewers all seem willing to perpetuate this. Do they just ignore the tangents you mentioned that pulled you away from the story, not to mention the inane dot com stuff, and just focus on anything that resembles Austen?

    All that being said you still gave it a 3 out of 5 and glowingly consumed (loved your seven course meal remark) the Jess and George relationship. Then RegencyRomantic and Nicole are not as favorable. So I guess this comes down to is Jess and George’s relationship enough of an incentive to overcome the other? I’m left with a big Hmmm on this one at this point.

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    • I really liked Jess and George.

      If I had attempted to review this book half way through, you would have heard me dishing oaths. I did not enjoy it. But as they say in show biz, the ending is what stays with you, so it was absolved.

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  6. Comparisions between darling Jane and Goodman are ludicrous. Regencyromance is correct; the best parts are the cover and the cookbooks. The 9/11 part was worse than awful. Overall, it was a disappointing waste of time that left a bad taste in my mouth.

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  7. Thank you for the review, Laurel Ann. I plan to read this book although I have a very tall TBR pile at the moment. I’m wondering how it compares with Three Weismans of Westport which I read last spring and found to be a lot of fun.

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    • Hi Cindy, I understand that The Three Weissmann’s mirrors S&S’s plot more closely. I have not finished reading it yet so I can not comment on it with conviction.

      I would not call this book a lot of fun. It had funny moments between Jess and George. Their prickly banter was great. The rest, not so much.

      Today a friend told me that my review was ambivalent. She expected me to love it or hate it. Well I did not LOVE it and I did not HATE it. I am ambivalent and smack dab stuck in the middle. Not some place that I like to be or write a review about. But that is my reaction.

      Hope this is helpful!

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  8. I’m eager to get my hands on this one to see if Goodman can measure up to our dear Jane! Your recommendations carry a lot of weight with me, Laurel Ann, so I’ll be grabbing this one soon!

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