20 Mar / The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman
Everything about this multilayered title shouts fraud … which, as stories go, is actually a very good thing. That it’s a novel already means nothing is true (except for the obvious historic events woven through). That the novel bounces between the ‘house-of-cards’-world of IPO-ing technical start-ups and the facsimiles of life displayed in an antique bookstore means everything is potential, nothing is quite real.
At the story’s core are the two Bach sisters: Still-searching Jess is a self-described “paper feminist,” who’s going through the motions of her Berkeley philosophy PhD; successfully established Emily, the elder by five years, is a “paper millionaire” as the CEO of a startling successful Silicon Valley start-up.
Their mother, who succumbed to cancer, sends letters from the grave on the girls’ birthdays. Jess barely remembers her, not only because of her young age when her mother died, but because Gillian Bach will, in effect, prove to be another invention. Their father, meanwhile, is playing house with a much younger second wife – so predictably his former graduate student – and another set of matching daughters.
Jess settles into an uneven relationship with an enigmatic treehugger who keeps her at a distance because Jess’ acrophobia keeps them from climbing new heights together (yes, he’s that shallow). Her bookstore boss, himself an off-the-paper millionaire thanks to an early Microsoft career in his past, is far more comfortable with his ancient ink-and-paper printings than he is with a possible flesh-and-blood relationship.
Emily distances herself with actual miles – about 3,000 – from the supposed love of her life. In Cambridge, Jonathan, too, is poised to become an instant paper bazillionaire with his own superbly positioned start-up. Their secrets – both personal and professional – will prove explosive.
Friends, colleagues, gurus, and missing relatives – not to mention the cookbook collector(s) who collect but don’t cook or eat or both! – weave in and out of the sisters’ story as they begin to claim their own true lives. The novel resolves a bit too conveniently, but in the world of make-believe, happy-enough endings are expected, right? No worries … the award-winning, versatile Allegra Goodman won’t disappoint.
I do, however, need to add a word of caution against the audible version, read by Ariadne Meyers. While the sisters are convincingly voiced, the other characterizations are not nearly as successful, least of all the men who all sound like strange variations of Phyllis Diller. The result is grating enough to have to take occasional reading breaks, although once you’ve heard the Bialystok rabbis à la Diller, it’s strangely difficult to get them off the silent page! In this case, listen to George the bookstore owner, and read the real book!