The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

A colleague suggested The Cookbook Collector to me during a brief kitchen chat at work. She was only a few pages in but thought I might find it interesting since much of the story is set in the San Francisco Bay Area. More than the setting, it was the title that piqued my interest because I have long had a fascination with cookbooks (much less of a fascination with the actual cooking itself, I freely admit). I have always thought of cookbooks as so much more than assortments of recipes bound together. To me, they read like historical archives, culinary time capsules which link cultures and generations together. Flipping through old cookbooks is so illuminating with their archaic techniques and ingredients. Contrasted against modern-day methods, they provide a sense of place and time—they give us a glimpse into the consciousness of eras long gone.

I had so many questions. Who is the collector? Why collect cookbooks? How many cookbooks are in the collection? Are they ancient?  When was the very first cookbook published? Will I find out in the book?

After work that day, I made a trip to my beloved Excelsior Library and scanned the New shelf. Unbelievable luck, two pristine copies sat beaming at me from the stacks. I brought one home, anxious to begin, impatient for answers to my questions. I opened the book and couldn’t believe my eyes. The Cookbook Collector is published by The Dial Press. It was only last week that I had read The Imperfectionists.  I wrote in my review that I planned to read more books from this publisher because of the quality of The Imperfectionists. It was as if The Dial Press itself had selected its next book for me. This was no coincidence. I was meant to read this book and I am so glad I did. I adored it.

The story occurs between the fall of 1999 and the spring of 2002—a period that will be written about in history books and economic textbooks—studied and debated in classrooms and living rooms for years to come.  We all lived through this era. Because of this, as we read The Cookbook Collector we bring our own experiences to the story, making the journey even more cogent, personal, and at times painful.

These years were marked by limitless creative energy, irrational financial exuberance, and catastrophic tragedy. The Internet revolution propelled careers to unimagined zeniths only to jettison many to cavernous depths. Millionaires were created overnight, while others were ruined.  Monster houses were developed, only to be inhabited by a few. People on the periphery gambled their paychecks on doomed companies, certain they were entitled to their piece of the dot-com pie. Then, on September 11th, we all watched in abject horror as thousands died on American soil in an apocalypse that Hollywood producers couldn’t have conceived. It is within this dramatic backdrop that the story of The Cookbook Collector unfolds.

Central characters within the novel are two sisters, Emily and Jess. They are polar opposites of one another. Emily is the brilliant CEO of one of the most exciting tech startups in Silicon Valley, an early security software innovator and an industry darling that is preparing to go public. Jess, five years younger and no less brilliant, is a Philosophy graduate student at Cal who is filled with idealism about the world and its people and is committed to living a non-materialistic life.  Their relationship is complex, tense, and real. The specter of their long-dead Mother is a constant presence; but her own history remains a lingering mystery for these women, adding to the incompleteness of their lives.

Early on we are introduced to George Friedman, a former Microsoft executive-turned antiquarian book dealer who owns a shop in Berkeley. He can have any material possession he desires. He seeks fulfillment through things, yet his longing is palpable.  It is through George that a massive collection of cookbooks is brought into the story. The role this collection plays, and its impact on the lives of George and Jess is absolutely astonishing. The original collector of the cookbooks, though dead, becomes a pivotal character too and his silent voice calls poignantly from battered pages. Food has long been considered sensual, ever since Adam and Eve took that first bite from the apple. As we delve deeper into the collection, we can’t help but feel an erotic charge emanating from the recipes themselves, which makes for some tantalizing scenes.    

In contrast to the slow-moving world of antiquarian book collecting where one looks back to see what has come before, Ms. Goodman provides a view into the world of technology start-ups, a world that moves forward at the speed of light. It is fascinating to be inside the minds of the characters here.  IPO’s loom and you almost tingle with anticipation at the unimaginable wealth that awaits many of them. This is fabulously fertile ground for exploring human nature, with all of its motivations, desires, and defects. How far would you go to become a millionaire? It’s a question I found myself asking over and over.

Hebrew mysticism weaves through the fabric of the novel, ironically, by way of an IPO. One of its central tenets, that in life there are no coincidences, provides another reflective layer to the story, especially in the context of the events of September 11th.

A primal theme of the book is love—romantic love, familial love, and friendship. Ms. Goodman examines the intrinsic multiplicity of love through the complex relationships of her characters. We want pure and radiant love—with all of its happy endings. But in real human experience and in this honestly told story, love is selfish and convoluted. It is easily manipulated and bruised. Love can be sacrificed for wealth and power. And it can turn into hate. Certainly we all believe that love can raise us up, transcend, and endure through life’s worst moments. But not all endings are happy, and love fails just as often as it succeeds. Like life, love is a mixed bag. To think otherwise is naïve, indeed.

The Cookbook Collector is great fiction. The characters and their struggles are immensely believable.  The confluence of old books with new technology and universal tragedy provide an evocative framework for reflecting upon our own impermanent humanity. This is the kind of book you long to read over a quiet weekend, for once you begin you find it difficult to put down.


About onequietvoice

I work in the publishing industry where I focus on developing print and digital products for technology professionals. I am interested in literacy and technology and how the two can coexist to impact our culture in meaningful ways. I am passionate about preserving the public library system in our country.
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