Discussion with Spoilers: The Cookbook Collector

This post is a discussion of The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman.  I’ve put my thoughts on the ending of the book in the comments to protect those on RSS feed from unwanted spoilers.  If you’ve read the book I would love to hear your thoughts!


3 comments on “Discussion with Spoilers: The Cookbook Collector

  1. I mentioned in my review that I had some problems with the ending of The Cookbook Collector. In fact, I had three problems, which I’m going to list here.

    1. Emily and Veritech

    As the book moves along, Emily Bach becomes less and less credible as the CEO of a dynamic internet startup. First, there seems to be absolutely no discussion of how she and Jonathan will resolve their long-distance situation — the solution is that Emily will quit her job and move to Boston. Emily clearly feels reluctant to take that step, but there’s no hint that Emily has asked Jonathan to consider moving. I didn’t believe for a second that a Silicon Valley CEO would be so passive about giving up a company she helped found. The assumption that Emily, not Jonathan, will quit and move seems especially odd given that Veritech is more successful than ISIS throughout most of the book.

    At the end of the book, after Jonathan dies on September 11, we learn that Jonathan has stolen Veritech’s idea for an electronic surveillance program. Emily rejected this idea for Veritech because she found it morally problematic, and she knows immediately that she has done the programmer who proposed the idea a huge disservice by leaking it to Jonathan. But aside from a flash of guilt at Jonathan’s funeral, there are no consequences. Emily just resigns from Veritech (which she was planning to do anyway) and goes to work for a Facebook-type social networking sight. We see no fallout from her indiscretion aside from a few sentences about what happens to Veritech post-9/11. I’m not saying I wanted Emily to suffer extensively for her lapse in judgement, but it felt odd for her — and the book — to move on so quickly from Veritech and to be so indifferent to its fate.

    2. The reconciliation with their mother’s family

    The absence of Jess and Emily’s deceased mother Gillian is a recurring theme throughout the book. At the end of the book, Jess and Emily discover that a local Orthodox rabbi is, in fact, their uncle. Their deeply religious grandparents disowned Gillian when she married Jess and Emily’s gentile father, but their newly-discovered aunt, uncle, and cousins seem happy to have found Jess and Emily. In the book’s final chapter, we see that the newfound relatives attend Jess’s small, close-friends-and-family-only wedding — one of their uncles even performs the ceremony.

    It seemed like the reader is supposed to think that this is good for Jess and Emily, that they will be able to fill the void left by their mother’s death by reconnecting with their mother’s family. But remember, this is a branch of the family that disowned their mother. The aunts and cousins we meet at the end of the book seem nice enough, but their response when Jess asks how they feel about the decision to abandon Gillian is an unsatisfying “oh, well, that was a long time ago.” It felt like it should take more than that for these strangers to be embraced into the Bach family as the answer to Jess and Emily’s motherlessness — especially given that Jess is initially skeptical about the new relatives. We hear almost nothing about why Jess changes her mind.

    3. Jess and George

    The marriage between Jess and George was my major problem with the ending of The Cookbook Collector. The other characters in the book tend to focus on the age difference between Jess and George as the big problem, but I didn’t think that was the major obstacle to their ultimate happiness. While it’s clear that George values Jess and does care about her, it’s also clear that he does not see her as his equal or as his partner. He sees her as a pretty treasure to be rescued, protected, and corrected for her wilder flights of fancy. Jess and George seem to know that there’s a problematic imbalance to their relationship, that George is perhaps not recovered enough from his intense selfishness to marry anyone, and yet the book ends with their wedding.

    It’s entirely possible that we’re supposed to be ambivalent about the speed with which the Bach sisters embrace their long-lost relatives, and that we’re supposed to worry that Jess and George’s marriage may not work in the long run. But the tone of the final chapter about the wedding didn’t seem to suggest any reason for ambivalence — the description of the celebration is warm and loving and satisfied. I suspect Goodman viewed this as a happy ending for Jess and Emily. I couldn’t quite agree.

    What did you think?

  2. Kaitlyn says:

    I’m so glad to have a moment to check in on this blog! I agree that I found The Cookbook Collector problematic, but for me it all tied into the fact that this ended up being yet another 9/11 book. I didn’t really expect it at all and I felt very disgusted that the resolution of Emily and Jonathan’s relationship was that he died on the plane from Boston. What a copout and how very little this had to do with any of the themes that were developed in the book previously.

    I think Jessica at GoFugYourself recently said something about really hating when a book unexpectedly becomes a 9/11 book and I wondered if she was talking about this one. Nothing up to that point (except of course the time period) led me to believe that the book would take that turn and it has colored how I thought about it ever since.

    • Kaitlyn, I agree that Jonathan dying on the plane was a) kind of a cheap way to resolve the problems in their relationship, and b) not all that well executed. But I thought 9/11 itself was fair game for the book — based on the date, I was expecting it to affect the characters in some way. I would argue that the abruptness and lack of foreshadowing is consistent with how the event felt to the people it affected. I can definitely see why it rubbed others the wrong way, but the family reconciliation and Jess’s marriage bugged me a lot more than 9/11 having a role in the narrative.

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