Review: The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

Allegra Goodman seems to be drawing a number of comparisons to Jane Austen these days.  It’s easy to see why — she combines Austen’s sharp eye for characters and relationships with absolutely gorgeous prose and imagery.  Intution, her novel about a scientific scandal in 1980s Boston, is one of my favorite books.  I picked up The Cookbook Collector full of excitement and anticipation. Throughout the first three-quarters of the novel, I was completely absorbed in Goodman’s story.  However, I found the ending problematic — so problematic, in fact, that I am going to post a separate discussion-with-spoilers for those who have read the book.

The Cookbook Collector focuses on two sisters, Emily and Jessamine Bach, at the end of the twentieth century.  Ambitious, type-A Emily is the CEO of Veritech, a highly successful Silicon Valley start-up that’s about to go public.  Emily’s boyfriend Jonathan is one of the founders of Boston-based ISIS, another technology company.  This high-powered pair juggles their demanding jobs with their long-distance relationship.  Jess, the younger sister, is a graduate student in philosophy at Berkeley, where she’s involved in various environmentalist causes and works at an antiquarian bookstore called Yorrick’s.  Jess’s boss George, a disillusioned millionaire in his mid-thirties, finds her idealism frustrating and fascinating.  The title of the book comes from a purchase George hopes to make for his bookstore: a massive collection of rare cookbooks that the collector’s niece has inherited but is mysteriously reluctant to sell.

The Cookbook Collector is an engaging read.  Goodman starts from familiar ground — one sister is successful and driven, the other idealistic and dreamy — and from there builds two fully-drawn characters with their own quirks, desires, and fears.  A sizable supporting cast, including Jonathan, George, ISIS HR director Mel, and ISIS programmer Orion, adds dimension and complexity to the Bach sisters’ world.  The inner workings of ISIS and Veritech are surprisingly gripping, and I adored the segments of the book that dealt with the cataloguing of the cookbook collection. Goodman’s beautiful prose evokes sights, sounds, and smells with incredible skill; I could taste a peach Jess eats, smell the old-paper-and-leather scent of the cookbooks, feel the cool shade underneath the trees where the sisters spend an afternoon together.

However, I found the ending of the book puzzling and ultimately unsatisfying.  It could be that Goodman wants her readers to feel ambivalent at the end of the book, but the general tone of the final chapters seemed to suggest that we’re meant to view this as a happy ending for the Bach sisters.  My frustration with the ending colored my feelings about the novel overall; it went from a book I loved to one that I admired but had some issues with.

But I hate to spend too much time complaining about a book that, for the most part, I really enjoyed reading.  My antipathy towards the ending is really a testament to how much I loved the rest of the novel. The Cookbook Collector will absorb you and make you think.  Read it, and if you disagree about the ending, come and tell me so in this post!

Rating: Library Loan

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