Archive for the ‘Allegra Goodman’ Category

Anyone who calls her book ‘a Sense and Sensibility for the digital age’ is going to cause a stir among the Janites, sending them flocking to bookstores and libraries to track down a copy (note to self: if ever write novel, be sure to compare it publicly to an Austen novel, thereby ensuring a built-in audience).  And with my trusted NPR praising it, how could I not pick up The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman?  Of all of Austen’s heroines, Elinor Dashwood is the one I identify with the most and I’ve always been rather disappointed that more modern writers don’t take inspiration from the story of the Dashwood sisters. 

The Cookbook Collector could be classified as recent historical fiction, a fascinating category in and of itself, set in Northern California during the late nineties and early years of the new millennium.  Central to the plot is the Dot Com boom of the era that made millionaires out of twenty-somethings.  The Elinor-inspired character, Emily, is at the center of technology sector and as the novel opens her company is preparing for its IPO.  Emily, like Elinor, is controlled, organized, and practical.  At 28, she longingly observes the happy home life of a coworker, dreaming of children and a husband of her own, yet even as she’s caught up in the stress of the IPO, she’s already pursuing the company’s next big project.  Unlike Elinor, she quickly fades into the background as the novel progresses and the reader’s sympathies become tied up with her 23-year old sister Jess.  Jess, a student of philosophy, has all of Marianne’s passion and emotion.  Like Elinor and Marianne, Emily and Jess could not be more different: Emily’s life revolves around her company and its success, with all other facets of her life, including her family and her boyfriend, taking supporting roles.  Jess, by contrast, is an enthusiastic environmentalist and is intrigued by mystical Judaism.  The novel truly revolves around these conflicting values: what is it that matters in life?   

As in any good story, there must be male leads to compliment and contrast the females.  Here we have George, owner of the bookstore Yorick’s where Jess is employed and collector of rare books, and Jonathan, Emily’s Boston-dwelling boyfriend and co-founder of yet another IT start-up hoping to capitalize on the boom.  George is single, wealthy, and in his late thirties when the story opens.  He is our Colonel Brandon, though rather more fussy and materialistic than one imagines Colonel Brandon having been.  That said, George is one of the more sympathetic characters in the novel, perhaps because, alongside Emily, we know him the best. 

Jonathan, on the other hand, is vile, always looking for an angle, oblivious to anything he doesn’t want to see, and entirely focused on how to make money, regardless of ethical quandaries.  He is a poorly drawn character, seen mostly through the eyes of others, with few complexities or layers, who largely fades into the background.  It is incredibly difficult to care about him, which makes one of the major plot events rather less potent. 

 How to describe what this book is actually about?  The plots themselves aren’t terribly important, the focus is really on the evolution of the characters and of their attitudes and the way they approach the world around them.  It is about determining proper priorities and of valuing love and friendship and family above material gains or, rather specifically, cookbook collections.

Honestly, it was a bit of a strange book.  I didn’t even like most of the characters but I only kept reading because of the characters.  For all its flaws, it is an intensely readable book, one that pulls you in though you’re not entirely sure how or why.  I wish Goodman had created more complex characters; Emily and Jonathan felt particularly weak, with no layers or subtlety about them.  It was very clear who the reader was meant to side with and which characters they were to disapprove of. 

Indeed, there is a distinct lack of subtlety or restraint throughout.  The events of September 11th are incorporated, which felt like a rather tacky and lazy way of bringing about revelations.  The Jewish mysticism felt equally pointless and, when tied in with a family rift, became particularly absurd.  I think I was just hoping for something more elegant and graceful but it was not to be.  Goodman’s style of writing is lovely; it’s just what she writes that bothered me.  If I hadn’t been so invested in the Jess/George storyline, I doubt I would have been able to continue with the rest of the novel. 

Perhaps part of the reason I was so attached to both Jess and George was their love of books.  It’s always easier for me to like a character who loves books and reading as much as I do.  These quotes (the first from George, the second from Jess) were particularly relatable:

‘The new one actually reads, but only to pass judgment.  This is the way kids learn today.  Someone told them how you feel is more important than what you know, and so they think accusations are ideas.  This is political correction run amok.’ (p. 24)

Working at the store, she had become a connoisseur of sorts, someone who knew the difference between a first printing and a latter-day edition.  She had come to appreciate white rag paper and colour-plates with tissue over them and marbled endpapers and gilt titles.  Once, she had insisted that content was all that mattered.  Now form began to matter too, and her eye delighted in elegant type, and her hand loved thick creamy pages.  She treasured what was old and handmade, and began to enjoy early editions more than new. (p. 195)

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