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An engaging and fluent writer, Allegra Goodman captures the essence of her characters and the zeitgeist of the ’90s boom.

Goodman 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Goodman 311
(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 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 company’s shares are publicly traded. Pragmatic and focused, she is the temperamental opposite of her sister, Jess. Five years younger, Jess is a graduate student in philosophy at nearby Berkeley, involved with an environmental activism co-op. To supplement her modest scholarship, she works at a local antiquarian bookshop, owned by the somewhat supercilious and overbearing George. George himself had made a gracious and lucrative exit from Silicon Valley a few years previously, his fortune affording him the opportunity to view what he considers the decline of civilization and standards with a suitably Olympian disdain.
Both 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 start-up, albeit on the other side of the country in Massachusetts. Emily, nonetheless, is confident that they can withstand the stresses and strains inevitable in a long distance relationship. Jess, for her part, is unable to commit unequivocally to either her graduate work or her on-off relationship with a fellow activist, protecting herself with suitably vague ideological armor against the concerns of money and relationships. Unlike Emily, her challenge is that of arranging the important components of her life in proper perspective.
But Jess stumbles across focus from the most unlikely of sources, when George asks her to catalog a rare collection of cookbooks that he acquires – for somewhat less than their true worth – from a rather enigmatic source. Reading through the cookbooks, Jess is drawn into a bygone age, the recipes revealing much about the people who wrote them and the bygone age they represent. But the story of the ownership of the books is just as seductive; tucked away between the leaves of the volumes are erotic sketches and enigmatic marginalia that offer up tantalizing hints about the original owner of the collection and an unrequited love affair, the dignity with which this personal tragedy is managed giving Jess a measure against which to evaluate her own life.
Beyond Jess, the cookbooks of The Cookbook Collector serve as a cipher with which Goodman elegantly parses the contradictions of the time. Take George, for instance, who desires the cookbooks highly but is uninterested in the contents of the collection; their value, for him, is the price that they might fetch on the open market. Or the love story that enigmatically unfolds within its pages, one defined by chasteness and fidelity, values largely absent from the worlds of the principals. The cookbooks serve as a reminder that there are some things that it is impossible to place a value upon; oddly, these things often seem to be the most important of all.
GOODMAN is an engaging and fluent writer, capturing the essence of her characters and the zeitgeist of the time with tart asides and knowing, well observed writing. But for all these deft touches, one begins to wonder after a while where precisely the fiction will eventually end up. At a point, George 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.
But one wonders whether Goodman might have done well to heed this warning herself.
The trouble is that The Cookbook Collector perhaps relies a little too much upon serendipity to move the fiction forward.
Early on, Jess, through a convoluted chain of coincidences, becomes involved – benignly, it must be said – with a small hassidic cult called the Bialystocks, who flitter through the novel until suddenly taking on a pivotal function near the very end.
Likewise, the convoluted tensions the sisters encounter, while interesting in themselves, struggle to integrate themselves in a convincingly coherent whole. It seems at times as if Goodman works backward from her central conceit, inserting when needed the detail that creates a convincing tableaux, rather than allowing the concerns of her characters to accrete organically.
But even with these reservations, The Cookbook Collector still succeeds in crafting a convincing portrait of the not-so-distant period with which it is concerned.
The ’90s were a period when personal values – despite the nostalgic memories that one may entertain today – were remarkably elastic. The era was a time of remarkably venality; as Emily acknowledges to herself, her company merely “offered the public... stupendous expectations” rather than proven worth.
Against this, old fashioned values like love, loyalty and family ties too easily become lost along the way.