The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

Wow. There’s a reason Allegra Goodman’s name elicits immediate praise in the world of the fiction-reading public, and this modern version of the Sense and Sensibility story with a distinctly American flavor is no exception to her usual quality. Beautifully written, this story of two sisters and their journeys of self-discovery will both surprise and delight you.

The story begins with a quick and easy characterization of the relationship between Emily (Elinore) and Jess (Marianne): there’s a downpour. Goodman uses simple parallelism to highlight the differences in philosophy and behavior of the two young women through their approach to rain: “Emily had driven up from Mountain View to Berkeley in rush-hour traffic. Jess just biked over from her apartment. Emily carried an umbrella. Jess hadn’t bothered” (3).  Jess’s roommates, Theresa and Roland, “loll[] on the couch watching Wuthering Heights on Masterpiece Theatre,” and, as any self-respecting Janeite will tell you, that is the ultimate put-down (7). Their Bronte-esque melodrama suits Jess nicely at this point in her life, and Emily tries, in various ways, to teach Jess to be more practical, to invest in valuable stock, to find a career, and to wear nice suits. Jess has the potential to be less flighty, though, as we see both through her devotion to work and her insistence on “Jo, not Amy. Austen, not the Brontes” (49). Jess and Emily lost their mother when they were just children, and on each birthday through age 25, they open a letter their mother wrote for them, knowing she wouldn’t be there to celebrate with them.

Given Mrs. Dashwood’s somewhat limited capacity to guide her daughters, Goodman’s making her character here communicate only through letters from the grave struck me as an intriguing choice, even at the beginning, but she uses the mystery behind the mother to great effect later in the story in ways we could not have easily predicted.

We meet some leading men early on, including Jonathan, a determined tech exec who may or may not be the Edward figure, and George Friedman, owner of the book store where Jess works, who attended Berkeley in the 70s, lost a sister to a drug overdose, and has a scar from a passionate affair gone awry. The latter most certainly fits the bill for Colonel Brandon. (Eliza would then become the little sister he failed to protect from hippy-dom gone unchecked, which explains why he despises tree-huggers.) The Wiilloughby character assumes a few forms, but is only attractive (to us, anyway) for a very brief encounter at a party where everyone except Jess is smoking weed, and he gets her home safely. (It’s no rescue from a fall in the rain, but it will have to suffice, I suppose, in our world.) Shortly thereafter, his self-involvement and, as Elizabeth Bennet would say, “selfish disdain for the feelings of others,” eliminate any desire on our part for Jess to be with him. Nick, George’s more light-hearted friend, could easily pass for Sir John Middleton.

The story itself is compelling, but the language makes it worthy of your time. Emily’s friend Laura comes over with cinnamon buns and two adorable children, Meghan and Justin. Goodman spends an entire paragraph discussing the children in all their beauty, while Laura and Emily look on from the kitchen. Laura says, “They’re easy to make” (51). Beat. Instinct tells the reader these ladies are discussing the children, and Emily response doesn’t contradict that instinct: “They don’t look easy.” But then the narrator tags on that Emily says this while “admiring the giant glossy rolls.” Is it possible the two women were never joking about making babies? Just when you begin to doubt yourself, Laura whispers to Emily that she is pregnant again. Ah. Easy to make, indeed. Some of Goodman’s lines really made me think, as, for instance, when the narrator conveys Jonathan’s sense that women want “the same thing men [do]—only slower” (233).

The financial world gets much attention, largely because money is everywhere: Emily is making it, George is protecting and spending it, Jess is borrowing it, and, to her surprise, a Bialystok rabbi is loaning it. The latter asks for no interest and not even an immediate payback, but just that she attend a class here or there. He is interested in computers (I could hear his voice: “I know from technology stocks!” 42), and he becomes a guiding force in Jess’s life, the irony of which she won’t understand for several years. When Jess visits her father, the Berkeley rabbi’s brother-in-law is there, and soon, through them, and looped back to Jonathan’s office, we are introduced to yet another important couple, Barbara and Mel, who are struggling to deal with Barbara’s increasing level of religious observance (and happiness) and Mel’s stress and pain at work with men a generation younger than he is.

In Jess’s world, meanwhile, language is central, both to the books she and George cherish and to their own burgeoning relationship. The books they peruse together contain erotic drawings, recipes, and excerpts of famous poems somehow linked to particular recipes. Goodman makes a little game of it for us, providing lines such as “Come live with me and be my love,” without naming the poet (here, Marlowe, for those of you who wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the rest of the review without an immediate answer). Jess accuses George of having “an edifice complex” because he is obsessed with his home, not understanding that his real obsession is her (24). George understands that she is not ready for him because “no one has hurt [her] yet,” and we are thus informed that the Willoughby character must do that for her to be ready for someone better (72).

We meet the Cookbook Collector in Part 2, and she—and then her collection—becomes key to the development of the relationship between George and Jess, who connect over books (another irony, since Jess bonds with her Willoughby over the shared passion for trees). The chemistry there, unlike, critics say, between Colonel Brandon and Marianne, is there from the beginning. Goodman’s delivery of their connection is particularly perfect, as in the scene where Jess asks why he bought her strawberries: “Because I love you, he thought. ‘Because I owe you,’ he said” (246). Contrast this simplicity of emotion with the barb Leon lodges at both Jess and George with his spiteful comment that “nothing with trees happens on the ground” (246). In one sentence, he privately attacks Jess for being afraid of heights and publicly scorns George for having less “in your face” politics than he himself practices. This contrast heightens the anticipation we feel for George’s eventual welcoming of Jess to his version of Delaford, which will change them both.

Very soon, the story and the language with which it is told become so engrossing I—gasp!—temporarily forgot to look for the parallels to Sense and Sensibility! Once we get to know the characters, Goodman constantly shifts us among them—we’re with Jonathan and Emily, the Jonathan and Mel, then Emily and Jess, then Jess and Leon (the last four occur within two pages of text, 170-71). She thus subtly suggests to us how connected the various individuals are to each other—in ways she reveals piece by piece. Emily has revealed a company secret to her boyfriend at the beginning of the story. From nearly that time, Goodman gives us enough reason not to think he’s the one for Emily. After all, he misses meeting her at the airport, he covers her eyes when he puts his hat on her, he talks far too much about her money, he’s unkind to his colleagues, and he pressures her to leave her job to move to his city. He is also immediately contrasted with Orion, Emily’s first “sweetheart,” whom we can’t help but prefer to the seemingly cold-hearted replacement (105). Goodman toys with us: Jonathan does not betray her as soon as possible by sharing her secret with his own company. She begins to trust him, and even we are won over a bit when the narrator conveys his thought that “he loved Emily, and he would not violate her trust” (115). Alas, eighteen months and hundreds of pages later, desperation changes his determination, and the fear we let subside turns out to be justified.

And then, just when we think we finally understand how everything works, September 11, 2001 changes everything.

Reading this book was a highlight of my week, and it was a really good week.

Published in: on November 8, 2010 at 9:30 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I really appreciated your analysis. You have a great eye for writing style and detail.

    I read this novel too. My reaction was different. I thought that the Jess and George storyline was wonderfully developed, but the Emily and Jonathan one not so much. The financial details were too weighty. The cookbook collector part was intriguing, but there was not enough of it. So, back and forth my feelings jumped as I read it. You made me appreciate other aspects that I had overlooked, but my mild opinion remains. Thanks for the great review.

    • I understand what you mean about wanting more of one and less of the other. Thanks for engaging my ideas with me, Laurel Ann!

  2. […] Fans of Jane by Natasha Zwick – The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman […]

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