The Sense And Sensibility Of Goodman's 'Collector' Book reviews can be pretty liberal about comparing authors to Jane Austen, but here's a writer who actually lives up to that association. Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector stars two sisters struggling to decide between wealth and virtue in dot-com-era California.
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The Sense And Sensibility Of Goodman's 'Collector'

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The Sense And Sensibility Of Goodman's 'Collector'

The Sense And Sensibility Of Goodman's 'Collector'

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Lots of book reviews and probably even more book jackets compare authors to Jane Austin. As a committed Jane-ite, I generally pass on those books - who could really presume to stand in her place?

But, dear friends, here is a new book by Allegra Goodman called "The Cookbook Collector," which offers many of the element we love in Jane Austin: the characters, including ridiculous ones and foolish ones; the love stories with all the impediments that society and fortune place in their path; the admirable and lovable heroines; plus, in this book - food.

Allegra Goodman joins us from member station WBUR in Boston.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. ALLEGRA GOODMAN (Author, "The Cookbook Collector"): Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Some of your reviewers, I note, have compared this book to "Sense and Sensibility." What do you think of that idea?

Ms. GOODMAN: Well, I'm flattered because I love Jane Austin. But I'm my own woman also, and I've had many influences on my work.

WERTHEIMER: But you do have two sisters.


WERTHEIMER: One of whom has sort of one way of looking at her life and the other has a very different way.

Ms. GOODMAN: Absolutely. There are two sisters. The older, Emily, is seemingly the more rational, pragmatic of the two - CEO of a startup company in dot-com-boom Silicon Valley. And her younger sister, five years younger, Jess, is seemingly the more whimsical, dreamy of the pair: a graduate student in philosophy at Berkeley and a part-time worker at an antiquarian bookstore.

WERTHEIMER: Now, very early in the book you describe these two sisters. I wonder if you could just read the description which starts at the bottom of Page five.

Ms. GOODMAN: Absolutely.

(Reading) The sisters' voices were almost identical, laughing mezzos, tuned in childhood to the same pitch and timbre. To the ear, they were twins; to the eye, nothing alike. Emily was tall and slender with her hair cropped short. She wore a pinstriped shirt, elegant slacks, tiny expensive glasses. She was an MBA, not a programmer, and it showed. Magnified by her glasses, her hazel eyes were clever, guarded, and also extremely beautiful. Her features were delicate, her fingers long and tapered. She scarcely allowed her back to touch her chair, while Jess curled up with her legs tucked under her.

Jess was small and whimsical. Her face and mouth were wider than Emily's, her cheeks rounder, her eyes greener and more generous. She had more of the sun and sea in her, more freckles, more gold in her brown hair. She would smile at anyone, and laugh and joke and sing. She wore jeans and sweaters from Mars Mercantile. And her hair - who knew when she'd cut it last - she just pushed the long curls off her face.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the book starts in the fall of 1999 and it ends in May of 2002. You picked this time period, I assume, so that you could discuss some issues like wealth and the economy and the market, all in the guise of the sisters and their story.

Ms. GOODMAN: Absolutely. It was such a fraught time and so much happened, so I was essentially writing a historical novel about the very recent past. And I was interested in the way these events, especially the booming economy and the bursting of that bubble would affect individual people. It's a period that is well-documented by economists and sociologists and historians. But as a novelist, I thought, what I can contribute is to write about this from the inside.

WERTHEIMER: What about the title of the book, "The Cookbook Collector?"

Ms. GOODMAN: Yes, you know, it's interesting. One of the characters in my book is not a person but a collection of very rare antique cookbooks, about 800 of them which are discovered by George - Jess's boss, the antiquarian bookseller -in a kitchen in a bungalow in Berkeley. And they were owned by a professor at Berkeley, years ago, and he collected them and obsessed over them. And George lusts after these books and eventually manages to acquire them with Jess's help.

So it's a book about hunger for objects, for money, for fame, for new technology, for knowledge, and also about that hunger for things that are tangible; for connections with other people, for love. And the cookbook collector, to me, is a symbol of that, a person who's hungry, who's driven.

WERTHEIMER: Give us more of a sense of the kind of exploring of goodness and the lack of goodness that you do in the book - some of the characters in the book, who are so, so interested in making money.

Ms. GOODMAN: Yes, you could say that Emily is the pragmatic one - that she's involved in this new economy. She's certainly driven to make money and to be successful. And she's an idealist, as well as a pragmatic businesswoman. Her boyfriend, Jonathan - and here again, I think this where their relationship affects his character. He is even more driven and quite a bit more ruthless than Emily. He tends to believe that the ends justify the means at times, in his business, as in his rush to go public with his company.

But Emily is the one that he admires. He recognizes in her, qualities that he does not yet have, and their relationship brings out the best in him - even as he is jealous in some ways. And so it brings out the best and the worst in him, I suppose.

And it's in those sorts of interactions between Emily and Jonathan, their relationship; between the sisters and their dynamic tension, that I like to explore how characters change each other.

WERTHEIMER: As you look at all these questions of collecting and acquiring and being successful in business and making huge amounts of money on your start-ups and what-not, do you think it's possible, you know, in this age in which we live, to be virtuous and wealthy?

Ms. GOODMAN: These are the key questions, aren't they, and one of the key questions in the book. I guess, you know, Emily and Jess - in their 20's -they're deciding how they're going to live. Part of deciding how you're going to live is deciding who you're going to be with, and part of it is deciding what to value in life.

Is value in your stock in your company, which could fluctuate wildly, where you are a paper millionaire? Do you find value in the natural world, as Jess does in the redwood trees of Northern California? Is what's really valuable and lasting a rare trove of cookbooks, or those companies whose names we can't remember anymore, who came and went? Or is value just to be found in other people, in the people that we love?

WERTHEIMER: Allegra Goodman, thank you very much.

Ms. GOODMAN: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Allegra Goodman's new book is called "The Cookbook Collector." You can read about how Allegra Goodman's character, Jess, got her job at the antiquarian bookstore on our Web site,

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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