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Book Review: In 'The Cookbook Collector,' what's worth hanging on to?

The Cookbook Collector

A Novel

Allegra Goodman

Dial Press: 394 pp., $26

It is a pleasure to read a novel by Allegra Goodman. Her writing is confident and accomplished, her characters are complex and her stories immerse the reader in a world that is often humorous and always thought-provoking. From "The Family Markowitz" to "Paradise Park" to "Intuition," the themes Goodman examines are both universal and distinctive. Now comes "The Cookbook Collector," in many ways a further exploration of her previous work. Religion and faith vs. science, family and loss vs. belonging, obsession, friendship and love, loyalty vs. betrayal — many of the themes explored in her previous stories and novels are visited here.

It is 1999, and sisters Jessamine and Emily Bach are on different trajectories. Emily, 28, is pragmatic, a businesswoman and math whiz, on the verge of making millions with her dot-com start-up. Jess, five years younger, is a halfhearted philosophy graduate student, working part time in a used bookstore, trying to save the planet. Their father, a computer scientist, supports Emily but can't understand Jess' forays into Judaism, veganism and tree-sitting. The sisters love each other deeply and drive each other crazy. Emily offers her sister a chance to buy shares in her start-up and very possibly make a fortune, but Jess doesn't have the $1,800 needed until she borrows it from a stranger. As always, Goodman delves into the dichotomy of life between absolute truths and the ambiguity of human relationships. She deftly dissects relationships between humans and objects and how those objects sometimes block human contact.

Early on, Jess asks George, her boss in the bookstore and a rare-book collector, "Do you like owning books more than reading them?" He answers, "I like reading books I own." This is the gist of the novel's dilemma. Everyone is a collector of something, but what can anyone truly possess? Ideas? Stock options? Souls? Even the years spent together in a relationship are different for each of the two people involved.

George made a fortune early and now spends his life in pursuit of his various acquisitions. He concentrates on the right food, the right wine, restoring his house exactly to the original specifications and obtaining old typewriters, ancient maps and, of course, books. Still, "[h]ow sad, he thought, that desire found new objects but did not abate, that when it came to longing there was no end." It is no wonder then that his ultimate collection is of rare cookbooks. That most elemental need, food, is rendered expensive and untouchable. He hires Jess for a special project cataloguing the books and their unusual contents, and the work makes her insatiable, not just for food, but for life.

As George goes on to tell Jess: "You think there's something materialistic about collecting books, but really collectors are the last romantics. We're the only ones who still love books as objects."

The entire novel is a romantic look at a time, just 10 years ago, when the world seemed innocent. Emily and Jess' mother, Gillian, died of breast cancer when the girls were very young. She has left them yearly birthday letters, little bits of wisdom from beyond the grave. It's both wonderful and macabre, touching and creepy. The girls will never forget their mother, but they also cannot move on.

With our gift of hindsight, the reader knows what's coming. The demise of the dot-coms and the economic crash are imminent even as the characters celebrate the material success they are about to have. They spend money that exists only on paper, and they make plans for a future we know isn't going to happen. Early in the novel, Emily gives up a secret, and it is obvious it is only a matter of time before she wishes she hadn't. Like Alfred Hitchcock's famous axiom, "There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it," this keeps the story flying along. In less competent hands, the reader's prescience could make the story predictable or even boring. But Goodman makes us care so much about each character and his or her individual story —- not what will happen but how it will affect these people we've come to know — that the pages cannot turn fast enough.

If there is any weakness in the book, it is the specter of 9/11 hovering on the horizon. When it finally happens, it is almost anticlimatic. A main character dies on one of the planes, and there is an extraordinary moment when the reader thinks "Thank God," for it allows him to be a hero while his treachery remains secret. Yet, in some ways, the horror of the event is dissipated because nearly everybody ends up better off. It's painful that it is so convenient, and from then on the book resolves too sweetly. But who can fault Goodman for wanting a happy ending, knowing, as we do, that today is coming.

Wagman is the author of the novels " Skin Deep," "Spontaneous" and "Bump."

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