The organic and the technical meet, clash, and reunite in the pages of Allegra Goodman’s novel The Cookbook Collector. Opening in the Silicon Valley tech boom of 1999, the two sides of this spectrum are embodied by the sisters Emily and Jessamine Bach. Goodman, a self-declared Jane Austen fan, sketches the initial portrait of the girls with the all the pastel gentleness inherited from Sense and Sensibility. The classic sister tension is established in the outlines of their opposing lifestyles. Emily is rational, responsible and at 28 is the CEO of a data storage company she co-founded. Jessamine is a Berkley philosophy PhD student with messy hair, a heart full of passion, and a mission to save the redwoods. The former is on the brink of becoming seriously rich. The latter doesn’t care about money and works in an antiquarian bookshop. One has a boyfriend who is similarly a borderline techie billionaire, and the other goes out with a tree hugging 40 year old who goes in for communal living. You get the point. They’re different.
These tensions do not make for stereotypes however. In fact my initial fear that this would be a pedestrian stick to the formula kind of best seller, disintegrated in the warmth of this broad, subtle book. The scope gradually swells and expands beyond that small stretch of California where the sisters’ differences play out. Soon Goodman has woven both US coasts into her tale, and an array of families, tensions and subplots encompassing, among others, a stock-market savvy Jewish sect, a conflicted woman with an oven full of cookbooks, an English computer programmer who doubles as a performance artist and who may, or may not, end up throwing a rubber chicken in the Charles River.
And that’s not to mention the cast of characters who machinate on either side of the tech and arts world boundary. These programmers and tree huggers, the eponymous “cookbook collector” all vie with their own equivalent ethical and emotional dilemmas. The book probes the implications of electronic fingerprinting and surveillance, the ethics of buying what arguably shouldn’t be sold, or saved, and the calcifying effects of long-term loneliness.
All these goings on of life, love and beyond beat to the rhythm of several metaphoric ticking clocks, the aging process of Jess and Emily, the downward direction of the tech companies share price, the weight of a certain secret Emily shares with her boyfriend, and the march of the plot towards September 2011, the year in which the book concludes.
There is no disjointedness; each part of this miscellany keeps an organic connection to another part. The well researched business and technical vocabulary is cross-pollinated with the psychological and emotional. Goodman pulls back the
curtain of jargon to reveal the inspiration behind it:
“Instead of lecturing about release dates and talking up ISIS products, Jonathan
was presenting new ideas…Orion saw the plan opening, blossoming like fireworks
trailing sparks and smoke in the night sky…”
This is not to say Goodman is a “girlie” writer, rather she is humanizing. Of course, the book does end on a wedding, which to me seemed a little too tidy, a little too redolent of an Austen-like romance plot. However that’s not to say it’s a cut and dry “happy ending” and anyway, who doesn’t like a wedding?