I am baffled by Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector, and I think the issue is one of expectations. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pleasant read, the story of two dissimilar sisters in Northern California at the turn of the twenty-first century. Emily, who works in what we used to call “high tech,” is the rational, driven one: Jessamine, a philosophy PhD. at Berkeley, is all feelings and intuition and impracticality. Their mother died when they were small, their father had high ambitions for the girls, and poor communication skills. When the story begins, Emily’s company Veritech is about to go public.
I don’t know very much about Northern California and what I know about that era of the tech business comes from Michael Crichton, so I enjoyed the setting. (There was a fair amount of overlap between Crichton and Goodman, but then I believe Crichton was a demon for research.) But as I read further about the two sisters, their love lives, their friends, their preoccupations, I kept waiting for something to happen, and reader, it didn’t. I was not moved. Nor was I provoked. Every now and then Goodman dwelt on something interesting: the section of the book that deals with the effect of anticipating and receiving sudden enormous wealth was intriguing. But I was waiting for something more.
Now, it is entirely possible that I missed the point. I get that Emily and Jessamine, with their opposing temperaments, nod toward Jane Austen and I made a token effort to try to squash Jess’s two love interests into the Sense and Sensibility mold. They almost fit — but that didn’t tell me much. And I didn’t know at all what to make of the cookbook collector of the title, who enters the book quite late. Is he a spectre, the fellow we may turn into if we don’t grasp life’s opportunities? Or is that George Friedman, Jess’s boss, in the early portions of the novel? (Goodman has the courage to make this guy quite dislikable, I’ll give her that.) Another problem for me was that many of the secondary characters seemed schematic, conjured into being because they served a function. Leon the tree sitter, for instance, seemed especially two-dimensional, representing the flaky side of Berkeley and the flaky side of Jess.
Nor, strangely, did I find much of the novel moving, despite the sisters’ relationships, the death of the mother, even the letters the mother left for her daughters to read on their birthdays. Even a death late in the book. Weirdly, even the gastronomic writing left me cold: Goodman goes into a lot of description in the cookbook section. She’s meticulous on food and home decor and I really love this stuff normally. Yet there was a particularly awkward dinner party scene in which characters’ personae were compared to various wines. I expected high ambitions from this novel. Goodman is marketed as literary and given the attention the book has received, I looked for more than I found here.