The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman is beautiful but flawed. There are some gorgeous moments in the novel where food and language elevate the characters beyond the confines of their simple lives. However, other moments read like a two dimensional sketch of people involved in the tech boom and bust at the turn of the century.
The novel revolves around two sisters, Jessamine and Emily Bach. Both live in the Bay Area, and the novel takes place in 2000 & 2001. Jess is a graduate student in Philosophy at Berkeley, and is a bit adrift. She is vegan, works in an antique book store and volunteers for an environmental organization, Save the Trees. Emily, the elder sister, is running a Silicon Valley tech company that recently went public, making her a very wealthy woman. She is very responsible, beautiful and is preparing to marry the founder of an East Coast tech startup. The novel follows the sisters’ lives (primarily their love lives) as the tech bubble bursts and they find themselves affected by the events of September 11, 2001.
Something about the sisters did not impress me. I never became completely invested in their lives, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps I was put off by their ill conceived love lives, which came a little too close to chick lit for my taste. The novel managed to save itself from the chick lit morass by presenting Jess and Emily were clearly intelligent people who did have concerns outside of men, and I appreciated that. Still, most of their love affairs were quite shallow. For instance, Jess spends much of the book involved with Leon, the head of Save the Trees, but he is barely around. Same thing with Emily; we learn a lot about her fiance, Jonathan, but outside of one pivotal scene the couple doesn’t interact much because they live on different coasts. Sure, in these sorts of books you are supposed to be cheering for the couple that is meant to be, but isn’t there yet, and not the one that currently exists and is clearly mismatched. Yes, that’s all there. But it is really difficult to see why Jess and Emily, these smart women, would pick such unsuitable lovers in the first place. Luckily, there is one relationship in the novel that worked for me, but we will get to that later.
So, you may be wondering, based on my discussion of this book so far, what the heck does this novel have to do with a Cookbook Collector? I wondered the same thing myself for the first half of the book, much of which is devoted to developing the sisters’ characters and some other subplots. Eventually, we learn that the original cookbook collector is a deceased lichenologist, who has left his collection to a niece, Sandra, with the instruction not to part with the books. Sandra is torn by her dead uncle’s request and her own need for money to fund a worthy cause. Sandra approaches George, the owner of the bookstore that employs Jess, as a potential buyer of the collection. Together, Jess and George assess the collection, find it to be unique and valuble, and Jess convinces Sandra to sell it to George.
Goodman shines brightest when she writes about the cookbooks and the burgeoning love affair between Jess and George. Though their relationship is predictable, it is lovely. George may be my favorite character in the entire novel, though I don’t think we are supposed to entirely like him. He is “older” (around age 40, whereas Jess is in her early 20’s), he is a curmudgeon, he “collects” rather than experiences, he is somewhat reserved, and he is a bit ostentatious with his wealth. I love these imperfections, though. George is real; he has loved and lost, he’s been burned, he’s a bookworm, and he loves good food and wine.
I believe we are supposed to be worried about Jessamine becoming a part of George’s “collection” as a young, naive, penniless grad student. This didn’t concern me a bit. In the beginning, Jess could have cared less about George, though George is clearly smitten with her. She doesn’t start to notice him until she starts working closely with the cookbook collection. Jess falls for the books long before she falls in love with George. Really, if it weren’t for these books, she probably wouldn’t have noticed George at all, and there is just something poetic about that. When Jess is convincing Sandra to sell George the cookbooks, she tells Sandra: “We’re not just collectors. We’re readers.” This is where Jess’s perspective starts to shift. Not only has she gained new confidence as a rare book buyer, and learns that she has strengths that George (the older and richer guy) does not possess, but she also realizes that she and George may indeed be kindred spirits.
Although Jess continues to resist George, he cannily woos her through the cookbooks and through food. He hires her to catalogue the collection, and Jess immerses herself in the antique books, finding a purpose and drive that seemed lacking in her study of philosophy. Her thoughts on the old recipes are really gorgeous, combining the best of food, sensuality and language:
Modern recipes were clean and bloodless by comparison, suppressing violence between cook and cooked. Not so here. Truss them…,lard them, boil them quick and white. This, Jess read, was how to prepare rabbits. Cut your woodcocks in four quarters and put them in a sauce-pan; but remember to save the Entrails….Incantory, hortatory. All verbs in the imperative: Raise the skin, tie up the necks; parboil them; roast them. Adjectives sparring, nouns succulent and rich, bespeaking bacon, and crisp skin curling from roast fowl.
She and George exchange notes on the cookbooks, never discussing them in person or even meeting up in person for many weeks. This is canny of George, I think: he entices Jess’s mind and captures her imagination. He lets the beauty of the language and the sensuality of food do the work for him. For example, he lets her know he is thinking about her by leaving a note about an old recipe he found for jessamine water. In one of the best scenes, he leaves her a gorgeous, perfectly ripe peach, which Jess resists eating for a few days. Finally, she gives in, and her consumption of the peach is better than any sex scene:
She washed his ripe fruit, and bit and broke the skin. An intense tang, the underside of velvet. Then flesh dissolved in a rush of nectar. Juice drenched her hand and wet the inside of her wrist. She had forgotten, if she’d ever known, that what was sweet could also be so complicated, that fruit could have a nap, like fabric, soft one way, sleek the other. She licked the juice dripping down her arm.
Did you notice that I’ve barely mentioned Emily, the other sister? She simply isn’t as interesting as Jessamine. Her relationship with Jonathan is practically a sham. We aren’t made to like Jonathan — he’s a class A jerk — and there is no other suitor that we’re cheering for. Emily is nice, but she’s a scold. I also hate how Goodman often mentions Emily’s beauty. It makes her even more unrelatable. Though Emily experiences some tragedy and betrayal in the book, it happens towards the end, and by that time I’d given up on her. Furthermore, we learn at the close of the book that she has not changed all that much. Emily’s passion at the beginning of the book is work, and that remains her passion at the end (though perhaps with a little more heart, but not really).
There are a number of subplots involving the sisters’ late mother, some Bialystoker rabbis, a mystery arising from the cookbooks, and the assorted lives of some friends and acquaintances of the sisters. They are additional color in the book, but nothing special. For instance, I never fell for Orion, an old boyfriend of Emily’s who now works with Jonathan, and his romantic entanglements. I suppose he was meant to portray a techie with a soul (his dad is a poet, after all), but instead I found myself feeling bad for his hardworking, neglected girlfriend. The other subplots, also having to do with matters of the soul and self discovery, are fine and work to round out the book, but I did not find them pivotal, though I think some of it was meant to be just that.
If you appreciate food and language, you will enjoy The Cookbook Collector, but bring a snack — it won’t leave you completely sated.