Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Cookbook Collector

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman is not at all about what the title might suggest. It is not about cooking; it is about studying cooking by reading instead of actually cooking. But it's not really about that either - it's about yearning for meaning in life, for something tangible, but finding oneself unable to get up and do anything about it. It's about getting stuck in our own inner mayhems, unable to act, to break free, to move forward. It's about being on the outside, looking in.

Longings - of love, of wealth, of answers, of meaning - plague the characters in the book, only most of the time they don't even realize that's the case. It is the tale of two sisters completely different in temperament and aspiration, five years apart in age but eons apart in personality, during the rise and fall of the early dotcoms pre- and post- 9/11. Only, we merge in and out of peripheral characters lives and viewpoints, to the point that the picture we have of the sisters, Jessamine and Emily, is mostly that of the men that love them, and so we are also left feeling we are on the outside, looking in, only seeing the surface of people and situations.

Goodman's language is liltingly poignant, insightful and highly quotable, with sentences like
How sad, he thought, that desire found new objects but did not abate, that when it came to longing there was no end. 
He could read her face, even as she became a stranger to him.
The book also openly discusses wealth, young wealth, and monetary, financial motivations pitted against spiritual, socially progressive motivations. However, it only discusses wealth from the point of view of the very privileged and very wealthy. The closest we get to financial problems is at the beginning of the novel, when Jess, a grad student of philosophy, doesn't happen to have $1800 lying around to buy her sister's stock. This is seen by her older, incredibly intelligent, highly successful and fantastically fortunate older sister as a failing on her part to grow up. Either my experience is drastically different from everyone else's, or it's a pretty normal thing for a 23-year-old graduate student to not have a substantial cash reserve in the bank. It's also pretty normal to have not 'grown up' by age 23. And so, while the actual acknowledgment of money as existing was nice, it also managed to fall flat.

Emily's naivete, at age 30 by the end of the novel, proved somewhat unbelievable, especially given that she is the CEO of her own company, graduated MIT, and is a multi-millionaire:
[S]he imagined that people were rational and courteous, as she was, and when they proved otherwise, she assumed that she could influence them to become that way. Dangerous thinking. When she was truthful, she expected to hear the truth. Reasonable, she expected reasonable behavior in return. She was young, inventive, fantastically successful. She trusted in the world, believed in poetic justice--that good ideas blossomed and bore fruit, while dangerous schemes were meant to wither on the vine.
Don't get me wrong - it's not as if I can't relate to having had this endearing point of view. I did... in my late teens and very early 20s, when I moved to New York (apart from the 'fantastically successful' bit, if you define success as running your own company and making millions in your twenties - I never did that - alas). However, reality normally reveals itself in some form or another, through heartbreak, through betrayal by family or friends or lovers, even through things occasionally just not working out according to expectation, by the time you're 28, or 30. We all interact with humans, right? For Emily, reality never manages to even scratch her world's surface, apparently, until later. She also has Jonathan, an Abercrombie, viciously ambitious and very unlikable boyfriend on the other side of the country, dealing with a similar dot com venture, and the relationship never quite makes sense, unless somehow the distance manages to mask true personalities.

My main point of bother with the modern plot (loosely based on Sense and Sensibility) was that as CEO of her own company in Silicon Valley, and with Jonathan starting and running his company over in Boston, when they talk of the future, the only option to make the relationship work is for her to quit her job and move across the country to be with him. That the converse might occur is not an option. It is not discussed. It is not even mentioned as a matter of contention. Even when she puts off moving, making excuses and dragging her expensively clad feet, even then, even in her own private musings, it is not once mentioned as a point of resentment. For such a successful, entrepreneurial, intelligent and "inventive" young woman, even as naive as she is colored, that the issue never comes up is a bit negligent in the plot development. At least include a fight about it, a logical, rational reason that it should be Emily that moves and not vice versa. But we, as readers, are not given that.

Despite my now seemingly heavy criticism, and despite the flaws I perceived, I actually enjoyed the novel, and was compelled to keep reading. The writing, the language, is superb. Lyrical. It captures much of the discontent and discomfort of that time, as well as the strange realization as youth merges with adulthood that life will never, ever be quite what we'd expected. The discussion of greed and wavering stock markets is all the more relevant after the crash of 2008. The dialogue is scripted, of course, but cleverly, meaningfully so. Because it's been too long since I've read S&S, I can't speak to the legitimacy of the comparison. Also, the New York Times seemed to enjoy the book more than I, so for a less cynical view, check out their review, although Beth over at Bookworm meets Bookworm seems to agree with many of my issues, as I do with points she brought up and I didn't mention.

The themes are interesting, if not entirely fleshed out, due to the overabundance of character viewpoints in the first half of the book. The ending is satisfying on many levels. That the men somehow manage to take the focus away from the women, in a book about women, is a little strange - but in this world, the plot device might be a clever take on our current culture, and how little it differs from the societal limitations of Jane Austen's time - how far we've come and how far we haven't.


  1. I think that your last paragraph is everything I thought about the novel. I really remember wanting to set it aside to tackle some other title, but knowing that I needed (and sort of wanted) to finish. I like that you loooked at Emily's character far more deeply than I had- I didn't realize that she wasn't really affected at all by human interaction. Her relationship with Jonathan was a real mystery; did they even konw one another at all? I felt like the title had so much potential, but left the female ensemble in the background. Neither Jessamine, nor Emily, were capable of making decisions for themselves. It was disappointing, especially considering the fact that the author was a WOMAN! This is a great review!

  2. Yes! This story had a lot of potential that happened to go in a much different direction than I might have anticipated. Also, I didn't mean to suggest that Emily was completely unaffected by human interaction, but she did seem to inhabit a lovely little protective bubble of naiveté, which ultimately burst, but was a little unreasonable to buy into to begin with. I am still glad I read it, and might actually recommend others read it, if only to have the shared experience - or see something I'm missing.


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