Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman
394 pages
July 2010 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: bought this one at the Half-Price Book Store to read with the Omaha Bookworms this month

Two sisters, 28-year-old Emily and 23-year-old Jess, who could not be more different. Emily is the stereotypical over achiever, the daughter every parent dreams of, the sister who makes living in her shadow difficult. Jess is the free spirit, the idealist, the thinker whose study of philosophy is a disappointment to her scientist father.

"Everyone expected Emily to take care and take charge. It had always been this way. ... Emily knew she was not an angel, but the more she doubted it, the better she behaved."
As Emily, and the computer company she helped start, move confidently toward a bright future, Jess struggles to nail down exactly what her future will hold. Emily tells Jess "you have a way of losing yourself in other people." The same might be said of causes; Emily frequently finds herself with different men involved in different activist causes.

Emily's boyfriend, Jonathon, is equally driven. He has also co-founded a computer company, scheduled to go public only weeks after Emily's company does. But where Emily is pragmatic, Jonathon is content to let other people take care of the details, while he shoots for the stars.

The constant man in Jess's life is not one of her boyfriends. Instead it is George, who made millions with Microsoft but now is the owner of an antiquarian book store and Jess's boss. George is a collector and one of the "last romantics."  But George has never married, unable to commit to long-term relationships, even when it comes to the things he collects.
"Endlessly he had searched for his love, and when he couldn't find her, he looked for signs, traces of her beauty in books and maps. He surrounded himself with talismans and reliquaries, but he never stopped desiring the one he couldn't find."
A huge cast of supporting characters orbit each of the primary characters, including two Bialystok rabbis, Emily and Jess's father and his new family, co-workers, tree activist Leon, and Sandra McClintock who one day begins bringing cookbooks in to George's store.

Along with that huge cast, Goodman gives the reader an almost equal number of plot lines as we learn about the lives of all of the characters. As a book club selection, all of these characters and plot lines make for a book with a lot to talk about. Perhaps because I was reading this one as both a person just reading it because I'd heard wonderful things about it and as a person thinking about discussion points, I came away from this one feeling of two minds about the book.

As a book club reader, I took a lot of notes to keep all of the characters and discussion points straight in my mind. A somewhat unusual book structure, sudden wealth, secrets, loyalty, trust, activism, family, collecting but not doing  -- all things I'm looking forward to discussing with the Omaha Bookworms tonight. But as a person just reading the book for pleasure, I began to feel like the book was work to read; too many characters to keep track of, not enough time to explore any one thought or character. Still, on page 329, Goodman hit me with something that I should have seen coming but somehow missed altogether; it was then that I realized how deeply into the story I had been drawn, how interested I was in learning how Emily and Jess dealt with what had happened.

The reviewer for The New York Times called this one a "feast of love" and The Barnes and Noble Review calls The Cookbook Collector a "delicious read." Fifty fewer pages, a dozen fewer characters, and I think I might have felt that same way.

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