Allegra Goodman’s latest novel—according to the book jacket, it’s one of her “astute social comedies,” though incisive satire it is not—may be a domestic saga, but it has all the trappings of a fairy tale circa Y2K: A pair of motherless sisters, opposites in every way except for their shared beauty, a grand romance with a man who’d be so wrong if he weren’t so right, a mysterious cookbook collection containing so much more than recipes, a spiritual homecoming delivered with a dose of Jewish mysticism.
There’s Jess, the Berkeley grad student and tree-hugger (we know she’s a free spirit because—dead giveaway!—of “her hair…who knew when she’d cut it last?”), and her sister Emily, the Ann Taylor-cut tech-startup CEO, an MIT alum with an MBA, an ambitious, all-American fiancé, and short hair. It’s 1999. Dot-coms are booming and stocks are up. Emily’s poised for unthinkable success, and Jess seems to be whimsically drifting away from academia.
Set against those pre-9/11 Silicon Valley halcyon days, “The Cookbook Collector” is part of a generation of novels attempting to capture the American climate just before The Fall. While Goodman gratingly milks the nostalgia for innocence lost (“they didn’t know it was September 11, but no one else did either”), the issues of the novel—the struggle to build and balance a career and a relationship, the subtle difference between being in love and being consumed, the difficulty of reconciling a belief system with real life—are perennially rich, and Goodman charts their course in smooth, self-assured prose.
Goodman’s characters, however, are frustratingly simple, presentational and ripe for analysis, if not empathy. They’re elaborate cutouts, each painted in a thousand shades of the same color: the practical sister and the whimsical sister, the cynical bachelor and the British sylph. “Hi-tech at work, Emily was paradoxically old-fashioned in her life,” she writes of her pragmatic heroine. Taxonomical as Goodman is, this may be the only paradox in the book.
Still, it’s a pleasurable read, absorbing and cathartic without demanding much effort or emotional investment in return. Trading complexity for neatness and ambiguity for warmth, “The Cookbook Collector” may not be one for the ages. It is, however, ideal for the summer of 2010. (Rachel Sugar)
“The Cookbook Collector”
By Allegra Goodman
The Dial Press, $26, 416 pages