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The Cookbook Collector

Is it better to collect rare old cookbooks, or cook? Should you take a risk with new ideas or play it safe? Should you wait for true love or settle?

The title of Allegra Goodman’s latest book – The Cookbook Collector – is not what it seems – surprisingly, it’s only peripherally about cookbooks, and not the contemporary ones you might be checking for a new recipe.

George, handsome and independently wealthy from early successful capital ventures, owns a rare books bookshop – just for fun – a place to house his collection. He really doesn’t need an income, and really doesn’t want customers. Jess, a Berkeley graduate student in philosophy, is the perpetual student delaying growing up. She works for George part-time, rearranging, admiring, and mostly just reading his books. Although Jess is 15 years younger and has a tree-hugging boyfriend, her excitement for life in general appeals to George – no matter that his conventional conservative attitudes conflict with her laissez-faire approach to life.

The sale of a rare cookbook collection becomes the catalyst for George and Jess’s awakening. Before you know it, George and Jess fall into a modern version of Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedict or Jane Austen’s Elisabeth Bennett and Darcy.

Goodman adds the foil of Jess’s sister, Emily, the bright entrepreneur and young CEO of a dot-com company; some reviewers have compared the sisters’ relationship to Marianne and Elinor in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility – emotions vs practicality. Others add to the drama: Jonathan, Emily’s boyfriend – more opportunist than creative, who steals one of her ideas for his own fledgling dot-com; the Hasidic Jewish rabbi and relatives, who become at once the comic and wise instruments in the story; and assorted friends and relatives – shuffling in and out of the action.

Just as the classic stories used the pursuit of love as the grounding, Goodman adjusts the relationships in her story . As characters grow disenchanted and enchanted, Goodman pricks your thinking about what really matters – in life, love, relationships, history – even principles of privacy and security.

Using modern history as the backdrop, Goodman cleverly connects the trauma of the dot-com bubble, as it grows and then crashes, to the lives of Generation Xers (born after 1975). Remember those too young millionaires of the early 90’s? How about the ones who invested everything, tasted the possibility of new lives with expensive cars, homes, toys – and then found themselves devastatingly with less than before?

Goodman might have stopped there, but writers today seem unable to not include 9/11 in the narrative. Everything is reevaluated and treasured for the moment, but life goes on.

Goodman ends the story on a high note – happily ever after – everyone finds their bliss or their purpose in life.

Taken as a love story of two opposites who attract or two sisters who rediscover themselves, The Cookbook Collector is a good read, but Goodman bravely attacks modern history too, and the book may allow you to find some comfort that “All’s Well That Ends Well” – at least in fiction – and give you some hope for the future.