'Cookbook Collector': Recipes For Millennial Delight Allegra Goodman's well-told tale of two young sisters begins in the halcyon days of 1999. Ambitious Emily works at a dot-com startup, while aimless Jess studies philosophy and drifts from boyfriend to boyfriend. Goodman demonstrates her gifts as a graceful writer and an uncommonly astute observer of human foibles.


Book Reviews

'Cookbook Collector': Recipes For Millennial Delight

The Cookbook Collector
The Cookbook Collector: A Novel
By Allegra Goodman
Hardcover, 416 pages
The Dial Press
List price: $26
Read An Excerpt

Allegra Goodman's sixth novel, The Cookbook Collector, takes place just a decade ago, but the irrationally exuberant world she describes feels as remote from our own as the vicarages of Jane Austen. The year is 1999 and dot-com startups are spawning overnight multimillionaires, among them Emily Bach, one of the novel's two winning young heroines.

Not yet 30, Emily runs a Silicon Valley data storage company that's about to go public and make her very, very rich. A conscientious worrier by nature, Emily feels vaguely uneasy about wealth achieved so easily. Her boyfriend, Jonathan, has equally great expectations for his own startup, but no such qualms: He's too busy daydreaming about Lamborghinis. Like one of the dashing suitors who surface early in an Austen novel, Jonathan may or may not prove himself worthy of soulful Emily. In Goodman's world, finding a suitable match is every bit as tricky and vital (if not quite so fiscally vital) as it was in Austen's.

Meanwhile, Emily's 23-year-old sister, Jess -- "the less responsible sister, the whimsical daughter, the girl with the fly-away hair" -- is following a different path through life. Actually, Jess is following no discernible path at all, and watching her meander is one of the joys of the tale. Cheerful, impecunious and mercurial, Jess studies philosophy, volunteers with a fringe environmental group and drifts from boyfriend to unsuitable boyfriend. She also works at an overstuffed antiquarian bookstore, a magical hideaway owned by an acerbic 39-year-old Microsoft millionaire named George.

Allegra Goodman's previous novels include Paradise Park, Intuition and The Other Side of the Island. hide caption

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Allegra Goodman's previous novels include Paradise Park, Intuition and The Other Side of the Island.

The novel's title alludes to a magnificent collection of antique cookbooks -- "guides for elevating and intensifying earthly pleasure" -- that George decides to buy from the estate of a mysterious collector. As the world goes through the terrible upheavals of 2000 and 2001, George and Jess catalog and study these ravishing volumes -- and go through some sweet changes of their own.

Goodman has shoehorned in a handful of distracting subplots, including the implausible appearance and reappearance of a Hasidic sect at crucial junctures in the action. But she is a graceful writer and such an uncommonly astute observer of human foibles that when she focuses her steady gaze on the daily lives of the Bach sisters, her novel is pure delight.

Excerpt: 'The Cookbook Collector'

The Cookbook Collector
The Cookbook Collector: A Novel
By Allegra Goodman
Hardcover, 416 pages
The Dial Press
List price: $26

Yorick's was not always the kind of adventure George wanted. Good help proved elusive. Graduate students, budding novelists, future screenwriters, manic-depressive book thieves -- he'd seen them all. With a kind of gallows humor he had printed up a questionnaire that he distributed to those seeking employment. When Jess had turned up, inquiring about a part-time job, he showed her the dark crammed store, the thicket of history, philosophy, and literary criticism in the center, fiction all along the walls and trailing into the back room where random stacks cluttered the floor. Then he returned to his desk and handed her his printed list of questions.

"Could I borrow a pen?" Jess asked, after digging in her backpack and turning up a handful of change and a warped chocolate bar. She was young. She had the clear- eyed beauty of a girl who still believed that, as they used to say, she could be anything she wanted to be. Of course she would not consider herself a girl. The word was offensive, but she had a girl's body, delicate shoulders, and fine arms, and like a girl, she had no idea how fresh she looked.

George handed Jess a black ballpoint, and she took the questionnaire and filled it out right on the other side of his desk. He tried not to stare, although she was leaning over. Casting his eyes down, he resisted the impulse to turn up the sleeve covering her writing hand.

When Jess finished, she returned the questionnaire and waited, expecting George to read her answers right away. He ignored her. When she hovered longer he said, "Give me a couple of days and I'll call you."

But he read the completed questionnaire as soon as she left.

1. Full name: Jessamine Elizabeth Bach

2. Are you a convicted felon? No

3. Are you an unconvicted felon? Not to my knowledge

4. Are you currently taking or dealing illegal drugs? No

5. Are you sure? Pretty sure

6. Circle one. A bookstore is: a meeting place, a mating place, a research room, a library, or a STORE, as the name suggests. Store for convicted felons?

7. Circle one. It's acceptable to wear earphones or use cell phones or notebook computers at work: rarely, sometimes, if I am daytrading, NEVER. Own none of the above

8. Circle one. It's acceptable to take money from the register: rarely, sometimes, if I really need to pay my dealer, NEVER. Wow, sounds like you've been burned. Sorry!

9. Short answer: No more than three sentences, please. Why do you want to work here? I want to work here because I really need the money for day-trading (just kidding). I love books and am well qualified to talk about them if you need someone knowledgeable. You have a great philosophy section, and as I mentioned, I am a grad student in philosophy.

10. Why in your opinion is this store named Yorick's? Hmm. I think this is a trick question. You want us to say because of "Alas, poor Yorick" in "Hamlet," but I can tell from looking at you that you are one of those guys who reads "Tristram Shandy" over and over again, so I'm guessing you named the store after Parson Yorick in the novel.

George read this last answer twice. The phrase one of those guys chafed. Was she saying he was simply an esoteric type? He fancied himself original, and he was miffed, or thought maybe he should be, for although he had a sense of humor, he exercised it primarily at others' expense. He found Jess a little flip, but she seemed sane, an unlikely arsonist. She'd do.

Excerpted from The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman. Copyright 2010 by Allegra Goodman. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press.