THE COVER OF ALLEGRA GOODMAN'S The Cookbook Collector is absolutely infuriating. A green and orange still life of a tumble of peaches and a few bunches of grapes, it evokes Jeanette Winterson's tackier covers, or, worse, The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Throw in the book's winsome title, and you've got what looks like a case of some pretty desperate Oprah-baiting.
What a surprise, then, to open The Cookbook Collector—trepidatiously—and find a sprawling, fiercely smart, socially astute drama set in the dot com era. (It's humbling to realize how many life experiences can be reduced to a very succinct cliché; in this case I've learned a lesson pertaining to book covers.)
At the core of The Cookbook Collector is the relationship between two sisters: flighty, fanciful Jess; organized, successful Emily. Jess works at a rare bookstore and is meandering her way toward a degree in philosophy, while Emily is the CEO of one of the hottest tech startups in the country—after it goes public, share prices soar above $300.
When the titular cookbook collector appears, it's by way of an antique cookbook collection that's sold to the store where Jess works—Jess is given the task of organizing the books, and cataloging the many notes its collector stuffed them with. She develops a fascination with the collection's previous owner, but the real treats for the reader are the snippets from early cookbooks that Goodman inserts into the prose: "Cut your woodcocks in four quarters and put them in sauce-pan; but remember to save the Entrails...."
Goodman writes as plausibly about the dizzying boom and bust of dot com startups (about data storage, and online security) as she does about rare books. Over the course of the book, an extensive, interconnected assortment of characters—friends, lovers, family, coworkers—come to bear on the lives of the two women at its center.
Goodman's previous novels—Intuition, Paradise Park, Kaaterskill Falls—have landed on bestseller lists and snagged their author a National Book Award nomination. So apparently everyone else has been reading and appreciating this woman for years, and no one bothered to clue me in on it. I can't complain too much, though—the sun's finally out, and I've got a back catalog to explore.