The Cookbook Collector

Dial Press  2010

 

In this somewhat confusingly titled novel, two sisters, along with assorted friends, relatives, and lovers, make their way through varied settings and scenarios, each dealing in her own manner with some of the major commotions that stirred turn-of-the-century American life. Set in both Boston and Berkeley, the book records some of the most noteworthy currents that flowed through the period, ranging from the burgeoning dot.com industry in Berkeley to data protection systems in Boston, and a “save the redwoods” campaign in California’s coastal Muir Woods. Also included are a community of Orthodox Jews and a bookstore specializing in rare books.

The novel’s principal characters are Jessamine, the younger sister, a graduate student of philosophy with an unkempt mind and carefree attitude, and Emily, who at 28, and older than Jess by five years, is a hard-driving and respected leader of her Silicon Valley company. The two could not be farther apart in temperament or outlook and accomplishments, yet what they do share is a large amount of sisterly love and a pervasive curiosity about their mother, who died young yet found a way to influence their lives as they grew up.

Their attachments to the men in their lives are appropriately romantic, even if workrelated, a condition that provides many captivating opportunities for on-the-job expressions of love. That circumstances evolve that will test their mutual devotions is a to-beexpected part of the plot, and there is no shortage of deceptions and temptations to keep readers’ fingers busy turning pages.

Allegra Goodman has been compared with Jane Austen, and the comparison is apt. She writes with a light but stylish touch, and piques the reader with her ability not only to penetrate the inner life of her characters but also to place them in the various worlds they inhabit: the dot.com business; rare book collecting and selling; saving the redwood forests; Orthodox Judaism, and the all-important family context.

Family bonds, family secrets, family bitterness, family harmony—all these qualities and more inhabit the pages of this book as it explores faith and morality, and chances lost and found. The author has attempted much, and has succeeded well.

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