Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

The Cookbook Collector is the story of two sisters, Emily and Jess, who approach life very differently. It examines their varied experiences over a period of a few years in the early 2000s, when Emily is the CEO of a dotcom startup and Jess is a graduate student. The plot and the characters owe a lot to Sense and Sensibility and indeed Goodman makes it abundantly clear that this is a novel for novel-readers; references to, and plot devices from English literature abound. But Goodman doesn’t adhere as strictly to the plot of S&S as Cathleen Schine does in The Three Weissmanns of Westport. She isn’t retelling the story of S&S so much as paying homage to the “smart sister, sensitive sister” dynamic, and her approach is less distracting than Schine’s.

Like Austen, Goodman talks a lot about money in this book, and who has it and who doesn’t. Emily and her fiancĂ© Jonathan (a CEO of a different startup) get very rich when their respective companies go public. Several other characters are quite wealthy, too. But I didn’t enjoy Goodman’s descriptions of high-end houses and cars and restaurants. I know the story is set 10 years ago (almost historical fiction!) but I was really put off by everyone’s air of entitlement, as if it was somehow inevitable that they were all going to end up rich. I will say that money doesn’t equal goodwill in Goodman’s world. Both Jonathan and George (ex-Microsoft) are unpleasant ubercompetitive jerks and one of them meets an untimely end. I’m sorry, do I sound like a total killjoy? I can’t help it. The book’s attitude toward money just seemed so retrograde and not in a good way.

On the other hand I wasn’t bored! Plenty of stuff happens (how’s THAT for a plot description?) and Jess is delightful, even if Emily can be a bit of a pill. The subplot about the mysterious collection of cookbooks is inventive and engrossing. Sometimes a book can have imperfections and still be a good read. The book I’m reading now, All Other Nights, by Dara Horn (plot inconsistencies! flat characters!) falls into that category too. I’ll say more about that idea when I post about that book.

(Book 37, 3011)


Ms. Wis./Each Little World said...

I thought this sounded really good but did not get very far reading it. I was also put off by the money stuff and just annoying characters. I am much better about just putting stuff down if it doesn't click after 40 pages or so. Your review makes me think I did the right thing!

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