The Cook­book Collector

  • Review
By – September 19, 2011

In this some­what con­fus­ing­ly titled nov­el, two sis­ters, along with assort­ed friends, rel­a­tives, and lovers, make their way through var­ied set­tings and sce­nar­ios, each deal­ing in her own man­ner with some of the major com­mo­tions that stirred turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can life. Set in both Boston and Berke­ley, the book records some of the most note­wor­thy cur­rents that flowed through the peri­od, rang­ing from the bur­geon­ing dot​.com indus­try in Berke­ley to data pro­tec­tion sys­tems in Boston, and a save the red­woods” cam­paign in California’s coastal Muir Woods. Also includ­ed are a com­mu­ni­ty of Ortho­dox Jews and a book­store spe­cial­iz­ing in rare books. 

The novel’s prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters are Jes­samine, the younger sis­ter, a grad­u­ate stu­dent of phi­los­o­phy with an unkempt mind and care­free atti­tude, and Emi­ly, who at 28, and old­er than Jess by five years, is a hard-dri­ving and respect­ed leader of her Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pa­ny. The two could not be far­ther apart in tem­pera­ment or out­look and accom­plish­ments, yet what they do share is a large amount of sis­ter­ly love and a per­va­sive curios­i­ty about their moth­er, who died young yet found a way to influ­ence their lives as they grew up. 

Their attach­ments to the men in their lives are appro­pri­ate­ly roman­tic, even if workre­lat­ed, a con­di­tion that pro­vides many cap­ti­vat­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for on-the-job expres­sions of love. That cir­cum­stances evolve that will test their mutu­al devo­tions is a to-beex­pect­ed part of the plot, and there is no short­age of decep­tions and temp­ta­tions to keep read­ers’ fin­gers busy turn­ing pages. 

Alle­gra Good­man has been com­pared with Jane Austen, and the com­par­i­son is apt. She writes with a light but styl­ish touch, and piques the read­er with her abil­i­ty not only to pen­e­trate the inner life of her char­ac­ters but also to place them in the var­i­ous worlds they inhab­it: the dot​.com busi­ness; rare book col­lect­ing and sell­ing; sav­ing the red­wood forests; Ortho­dox Judaism, and the all-impor­tant fam­i­ly context. 

Fam­i­ly bonds, fam­i­ly secrets, fam­i­ly bit­ter­ness, fam­i­ly har­mo­ny — all these qual­i­ties and more inhab­it the pages of this book as it explores faith and moral­i­ty, and chances lost and found. The author has attempt­ed much, and has suc­ceed­ed well.

Read Alle­gra Good­man’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Writ­ing Jew­ish” Fic­tion

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Fic­tion and Museums

Claire Rudin is a retired direc­tor of the New York City school library sys­tem and for­mer librar­i­an at the Holo­caust Resource Cen­ter and Archives in Queens, NY. She is the author of The School Librar­i­an’s Source­book and Chil­dren’s Books About the Holocaust.

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