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The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

picture of book cover

Take two sisters, the setting of Silicon Valley, a handkerchief-twisting “will they or won’t they romance?” and the mystery of a collection of cookbooks. Add a heaping cup of literary references and a dash of Judaism, and you have The Cookbook Collector: A Novel

I’ve been wrestling with whether I loved The Cookbook Collector because it is actually awesome, or because I’ve spent the bulk of the summer reading sad non-fiction. Since I’ve mulled on the plot for days, I’m going to go with the former.

Emily, the eldest no-nonsense sister, is in the throes of starting a start-up company while her boyfriend is across the country starting his own competing firm. It’s clear to everyone, apart from Emily, that Jonathan is all about Jonathan, but the arc takes a surprising turn. Flightier sister Jessamine, meanwhile, attracts a series of earnest but lousy boyfriends while working at a rare books store and trying to finish her doctorate in philosophy. While Goodman has always delighted in literary details, her wry wit directed at technology life in 1999 causing me to laugh out loud.  George, the owner of the bookstore where Jessamine works, is “old money, a Microsoft millionaire now returned to Berkeley where he’d gone to college in the seventies, majoring in physics with a minor in psychotropics.” A party thrown by Jonathan’s company reflects the largesse of the era: it’s a “2000 Leagues Under the Sea @ The New England Aquarium.”

“The waiters dressed in antique diving gear with helmets of copper, nickel and glass,” Goodman writes. “Secretaries wore slinky dresses, while the programmers donned black sweaters with their jeans. Dave wore black from head to toe: a black suit with a black dress shirt, no tie, like an East Coast Larry Ellison. Only the fish came as themselves: the prickly puffer fish and blue-striped wrasse, the lumpy grouper and billowy eel. As the party ascended a spiral ramp around their giant tank, armored sea turtles rose from the depths along with undulating rays. Disdainful sharks circled with mouths agape, all needle teeth and pinprick eyes.”

The story, all with intersecting characters, maintains a brisk pace; it’s just that some plotlines are more interesting than others. Orion, who cofounds the company with Jonathan and is a long-time friend of Emily’s, seems to exist to confirm Jonathan’s deteriorating morals. Since you already know Jonathan is bad news, you’re eager for Goodman to get back to whether lonely, middle-aged and somewhat swoon-worthy George (He cooks! He’s protective! He named his bookstore after a Tristam Shandy character!) will ever reveal his feelings toward Jess.

There’s also a refreshing sincerity to many of these characters, and to the story itself, that doesn’t exist in widely heralded novels like Freedom or The Privileges. The Cookbook Collector is a great choice for those who enjoyed Goodman’s previous novels, or those who have liked One Day, This is Where We Live or Red Hook Road.