I truly admire Allegra Goodman's storytelling techniques, and while her latest novel, The Cookbook Collector, isn't 100% successful, it did manage to convey the same deep, emotional resonance that I found so affecting in Intuition. The novel opens deep in the heart of the Silicon Alley dot com explosion of the mid-1990s where the main protagonists in The Cookbook Collector, two radically different sisters, find themselves on opposite ends of the economic spectrum.
Emily is the CEO of a tech company about to launch its first IPO -- she's driven, successful and engaged to an equally driven and successful man whose career mirrors her own. Jessamine works part-time at a bookstore where her boss, George, collects rare books and sells them to like-minded men and women who like to own things. She's still a student, and finds herself increasingly involved in causes -- whether it's Jewish mysticism or saving the redwood trees, Jess's life drifts along in a mist of misguided intentions.
Where her sister drives to succeed, Jess can't seem to find her footing. And Emily's trouble comes when she discovers that monetary/business success can't necessarily propel you into being well-adjusted in the face of tragedy and/or disappointment. Both girls show their strengths in different ways throughout the course of the novel, and their evolution is at once both as disconcerting as it is refreshing. In a sense, they take a cue from the central metaphor in the novel -- this cookbook collection that George discovers and then covets -- it's full of rich lives, rich recipes, but it's crammed into a kitchen not used for cooking. Where there should live pots and pans, there are books upon valuable books. And when you collect things, be it rare books or stock shares, there's an element of your life that you aren't necessarily living.
In a way, the journey that both Emily and Jess take moves from being a collection of attributes: motherless daughters, successful/unsuccessful, preppy/hippie, to fully realized human beings. It's not an easy process for either of them, and there's bookended tragedies that seem to define their growth -- the death of their mother on one end and then the aftershock of 9/11 (with things I won't spoil here) as the other. I'm not saying Goodman's novel isn't flawed, it is, the coincidences are a little too coincidental, and I'm not sure that any novelist has really gotten to the core of 9/11 in a way that I feel comfortable with -- the way Goodman used it didn't ring 100% true to me in this case. But she's such a great writer of characters, and I still couldn't put this book down once I started. Not sure I agree with the blurbage on Amazon and other places that compares The Cookbook Collector to an Austen novel, but I enjoyed so much about it, from the setting to the delicious descriptions of the cookbooks themselves (they are awesome, trust me), that it made for a truly satisfying summer read.