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'The Cookbook Collector': When the Start-ups Ruled

Photo of Allegra Goodman (partial) by Nina Subin

The Cookbook Collector does all the things a good book should do: entertain, enlighten, prove in these days of dying publishing that the novel is alive and well.

The Cookbook Collector

Publisher: Dial / Random House
Length: 394 pages
Author: Allegra Goodman
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-07

Much has been made of Allegra Goodman’s modern take on Sense and Sensibility. Normally, I loathe books that “borrow” from classics. Ever moderate in my emotions, I feel the Jane Austen Zombie series should be set aflame, and I am woefully weary of books exploiting Jane as their jumping off point. Ditto all those Sylvia Plath books. Leave the poor women in peace. Create your own plot line.

Fortunately, Goodman is such a good novelist that the Austen connection in The Cookbook Collector is like Jane Smiley’s reworking of Macbeth in A Thousand Acres. Neither requires its predecessor: both are excellent in their own right.

The Cookbook Collector is both a study of modern life and an examination of its contrasts. The year is 1999. The paperless world edges up against books, the ecumenical battle the secular, the dreamers debate the rational. This last trait is apparent in protagonists Jessamine and Emily Bach. Idealistic, flighty Jess is a nominal graduate student and passionate vegan who is deeply involved in saving California Redwoods. Emily is cool, scientific, logical. She lives in Palo Alto, where she is CEO of Veritch, an internet startup soon to go public. Which will make her very, very rich.

It’s almost painfully nostalgic to read about Veritech’s IPO. The days of internet startups were not so long ago, yet already they seem a distant, headily innocent time. Eleven years ago, September 11th was just another day in a month connoting summer heat, the last garden tomatoes, the first whispers of fall. The economy was awash in cash, however ill-begotten, and all that cash was given to companies like Veritech and Isis, where Emily’s boyfriend, Jonathan, is readying his group for a huge IPO of their own.

Great wealth is imminent, but even better, perhaps, is the sense of opportunity. Emily, Jonathan, and their coworkers—most still in their 20s—are breathless geniuses at the forefront of a new world. Even the money, when it comes, will have to wait, for there is so much important work to do.

Fifty miles away, Jess barely seems to touch ground. Though intelligent, Jess’s passions are scattered. She refuses to settle into a conventionally stable life, be it a career path or potentially lucrative course of study. Instead, she moves from Kant to Hume to leafleting about Redwoods. In need of cash, she cajoles George Friedman, idiosyncratic owner of Yorick’s Used and Rare Books, into hiring her as a saleswoman. She is a well-meaning if poor employee, tending to read the books rather than sell them, driving George crazy with her theories and commentary.

George is 39, a millionaire courtesy of Microsoft, able to retire early and pursue his love of antiquarian books. A curmudgeonly sort, he lives alone in the Berkeley Hills, inhabiting a meticulously restored Bernard Maybeck home, where he revels in his collections of antique typewriters, maps, and precious old volumes. He cooks gourmet voluptuary dinners for one, opens fine wines to accompany them, mulls over his failed past loves, and gradually falls for Jess.

In the midst of these characters we’re given Rabbi Nachum Helfgott. Like Jess, he leaflets eagerly, seeking lapsed Jews and welcoming converts. When Jess’ neighbor Mrs. Gibbs brings her young charge to meet Helfgott, he promptly invites her to Shabbat Dinner. He inquires about her origins and is pleased to learn Jess’s mother, the deceased Gillian Bach, was a Jew, albeit a nonpracticing one.

Helfgott and his brother-in-law, Rabbi Yehuda Zylberfenig, who just happens to live near Jess and Emily’s father in Massachusetts, seem misplaced. Though their presence is explained, even the explanation—a plot spoiler—is somewhat farfetched. Either Goodman cannot bear to leave Judaism out of a novel, or deliberately includes it in her portrait of our unstable, modern moment. However technologically advanced, however far we get from our origins, some of us remain ardently devout.

As Veritech goes public and stock fetches millions, a bedraggled woman named Sandra appears at Yorick’s. She carries a few rare cookbooks, left by her uncle. Warily she informs George that her uncle’s house is filled with old cookbooks. She thinks she’d like an appraisal, but she isn’t sure. George is alternately annoyed and piqued by Sandra’s appearances in the shop; he begins to suspect there are some serious books in the house on Russell Street. His suspicions will prove accurate.

Goodman has gone to great lengths to portray Berkeley accurately. I live two miles outside the city, and work on the UC campus. The many streets and stores named in The Cookbook Collector are places I walk and shop at daily. Reading about them was almost an interruption at times, as my ideas about my adopted home sometimes clashed with Goodman’s depictions.

She cites Pegasus Books’ “walls of science fiction and fantasy” when the actual store sells new and used books ranging from cooking to fiction to zines. (Curious? Look here: Pegasus Book, and don’t forget to check out the adorable store pets.) Jess and George have an argument, then, in a nod to her veganism, have dinner at Greens, in San Francisco. Berkeley is awash in good vegan and vegetarian restaurants, and Greens is not exactly around the corner. A dinner there requires some foresight and possibly reservations. Why would George and Jess drive out of Berkeley, over the Bay Bridge (where the toll has risen to a heart-stopping six bucks) and across San Francisco (Greens is not easily reached on public transit unless you are willing to take Rapid Transit and a couple buses) to get a nice meal?

Finally, there is what I’ll call the wingnut factor. Berkeley’s stereotype as a lefty city full of aging hippies and organic foodies is well-deserved, and Goodman plays off it subtly. I cannot say she makes overt fun, but it’s no coincidence that Jess lives in Berkeley and Emily in the more staid Palo Alto. Then again, given the choice between people who festoon their Prius bumpers with Give Peace A Chance or McCain/Palin, I’ll take peace every time.

Nonetheless, please realize that although many of us are politically left, in numerous ways we are just like other Americans. Many of us find the tree-sitters and marchers a detriment to serious causes; if nothing else, the tree sitters at Berkeley’s Memorial Grove, who were protesting the construction of a new campus sports stadium, were one hell of nuisance. News helicopters circled Sather Tower, just outside my office, for days on end. I wanted to howl like a dog.

Unemployment is rampant, as are foreclosures. The streets Goodman carefully names--Channing, Durant, Telegraph—are laced with empty storefronts. Like you, we folks in Berkeley want food, shelter, a decent economy. In fairness to Goodman, she’s the author. Anne Tyler, who sets her work in and around Baltimore, was once criticized by a fan for moving a cemetery in one of her novels. When the fan cited the cemetery’s actual location, Tyler replied, “Not in my Baltimore.” Well, not in Goodman’s Berkeley.

Back in staid Palo Alto, Emily’s newfound wealth doesn’t solve the niggling problem of Jonathan. Specifically, he has remained in their native Cambridge. Both dislike their long-distance relationship. At some point, Emily plans to leave Veritech, returning home to marry Jonathan. The couple doesn’t think much beyond that, why Emily is the one to leave or what she’ll do once back home.

Jonathan Tilghman’s character is a tour de force, an example of the tired but true “show, don’t tell”. A wünderkind, a former marine, it's Jonathan’s charisma that attracts both investors and fellow geniuses to Isis. He's deeply in love with Emily, who, he admits to himself, acts as a sort of moral corrective. For Jonathan, though gifted, emerges as a master manipulator, thief, and liar whose drive for success trumps everything, including Emily. We learn this by living inside his head, a place Emily cannot go, and with her at a distance, we see rapacious greed fighting—and triumphing—over Jonathan’s better, weaker instincts.

Several subplots are swirled through the novel: there are Emily’s coworkers, including the young Russian Alex, who is in love with her, Emily’s assistant, Laura, a hard-working, church-going young mother whose wealth will vanish as quickly as it came. There are Jess’ Save the Trees confederates, a ragtag, righteous group who periodically inhabit a Humboldt County redwood tree á la Julia Butterfly Hill, activist boyfriends Noah and Leon, each scruffy and judgmental. There are the young men who work at the startups, and the very few women, including Isis’s Sorel, a sort of anti-Lisebth Salander. Though Sorel is expert at cracking computer code, she is a peacenik who carries her guitar everywhere and hopes to make art full-time. There is Richard, Jess and Emily’s father, now remarried to Heidi. Richard is a scientist at MIT, a taciturn man who refuses to speak of his first wife, Gillian.

Gillian is a conundrum for her daughters. Diagnosed with breast cancer, she left her daughters packets of letters to be opened on each birthday. She died when Emily was ten, Jess, five. They know little of their mother save she was English and a talented musician. Her letters are marvels of reticence. Emily longs to know more. Jess, too young when Gillian died to recall much, is more sanguine. As the story unfolds, Gillian’s past is revealed, much to Emily’s joy. Jess is less interested in the revelations surrounding the matrilineal family tree. Her heart and mind are back in Berkeley.

The novel builds toward September 11th, that infamous day that is so difficult to write about. Goodman makes what happened a pivot point without bathos. Emily and Jess are changed, for the larger crisis tips into the personal, yet both emerge the better for it. If the ending is a return to Austen, closing with a wedding at the Berkeley Rose Garden, (for a Yelp review and some gorgeous shots of the Berkeley Rose Garden, click here:

The Cookbook Collector does all the things a good book should do: entertain, enlighten, prove in these days of dying publishing that the novel is alive and well. We watch the characters change and grow even as the world around them—our world—moves so quickly they (us) cannot keep up. We are reminded that remnants of the past—such as ancient cookbooks—are equally worthy of the latest technology and merit preservation.

For the devout, there is proof of a greater power. The Cookbook Collector is the sort of book one might reread at a future date and feel a sort of sad nostalgia, for the present is ever-moving, making today’s innovations tomorrow’s relics.


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