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
© 2007 – 2010 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose