(photo credit: Courtesy)
When measured against the economic and political turbulence of the last couple
of years, it is easy to think about the closing years of the last millennium –
the economic prosperity of the period, the placid geopolitical landscape – a bit
wistfully. But the problem with this rose-tinted impression of the recent past is
that it is essentially nostalgic, and nostalgia has a particularly cruel way of
playing tricks with the memory.
Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector,
however, is anything but sentimental about the period. Set amid the dot.com
frenzy of the late ’90s, the book casts a wry eye over the values of the period,
and on the whole finds them wanting.
Emily is CEO of a Silicon Valley
start-up and is poised to make a small personal fortune when the
shares are publicly traded. Pragmatic and focused, she is the
opposite of her sister, Jess. Five years younger, Jess is a graduate
philosophy at nearby Berkeley, involved with an environmental activism
supplement her modest scholarship, she works at a local antiquarian
owned by the somewhat supercilious and overbearing George. George
made a gracious and lucrative exit from Silicon Valley a few years
his fortune affording him the opportunity to view what he considers the
of civilization and standards with a suitably Olympian disdain.
sisters, albeit in very different ways, face the conflicting demands of
professional and personal commitments.
Emily’s fiancé, the relentlessly
driven Jonathan, also runs a successful dot.com start-up, albeit on the
side of the country in Massachusetts. Emily, nonetheless, is confident
can withstand the stresses and strains inevitable in a long distance
relationship. Jess, for her part, is unable to commit unequivocally to
her graduate work or her on-off relationship with a fellow activist,
herself with suitably vague ideological armor against the concerns of
relationships. Unlike Emily, her challenge is that of arranging the
components of her life in proper perspective.
But Jess stumbles across
focus from the most unlikely of sources, when George asks her to catalog
rare collection of cookbooks that he acquires – for somewhat less than
true worth – from a rather enigmatic source. Reading through the
is drawn into a bygone age, the recipes revealing much about the people
wrote them and the bygone age they represent. But the story of the
the books is just as seductive; tucked away between the leaves of the
are erotic sketches and enigmatic marginalia that offer up tantalizing
about the original owner of the collection and an unrequited love
dignity with which this personal tragedy is managed giving Jess a
against which to evaluate her own life.
Beyond Jess, the cookbooks of The
serve as a cipher with which Goodman elegantly
contradictions of the time. Take George, for instance, who desires the
highly but is uninterested in the contents of the collection; their
him, is the price that they might fetch on the open market. Or the love
that enigmatically unfolds within its pages, one defined by chasteness
fidelity, values largely absent from the worlds of the principals. The
serve as a reminder that there are some things that it is impossible to
value upon; oddly, these things often seem to be the most important of
GOODMAN is an engaging and fluent writer, capturing the essence of
her characters and the zeitgeist of the time with tart asides and
observed writing. But for all these deft touches, one begins to wonder
while where precisely the fiction will eventually end up. At a point,
warns Jess not to become too obsessed with the cookbooks.
“You have to be
careful not to fall in love with your own material,” he cautions.
wonders whether Goodman might have done well to heed this warning
The trouble is that The Cookbook
perhaps relies a
little too much upon serendipity to move the fiction forward.
Jess, through a convoluted chain of coincidences, becomes involved –
it must be said – with a small hassidic cult called the Bialystocks, who
through the novel until suddenly taking on a pivotal function near the
Likewise, the convoluted tensions the sisters encounter, while
interesting in themselves, struggle to integrate themselves in a
coherent whole. It seems at times as if Goodman works backward from her
conceit, inserting when needed the detail that creates a convincing
rather than allowing the concerns of her characters to accrete
But even with these reservations, The Cookbook Collector
still succeeds in crafting a convincing portrait of the not-so-distant
with which it is concerned.
The ’90s were a period when personal values –
despite the nostalgic memories that one may entertain today – were
elastic. The dot.com era was a time of remarkably venality; as Emily
acknowledges to herself, her company merely “offered the public...
expectations” rather than proven worth.
Against this, old fashioned
values like love, loyalty and family ties too easily become lost along