When I ran across the title The Cookbook Collector, I knew I had to read it, for one simple reason: I collect cookbooks. I have well over a hundred by now, including a book of Icelandic recipes I picked up changing planes in Reykjavik, a collection of rum-based recipes from Belize, and a delightful book that I'll almost certainly never cook from, of Hawaiian Spam recipes. Since my passion for cooking and cookbooks was originally sparked many years ago* by my good friend Colleen over at Col Reads, we decided to have some fun and read and review The Cookbook Collector together - so you can check out her review as well, also posted today.
I generally take the blurbs on the back cover with a grain of salt, particularly when they involve comparisons to the incomparable Jane Austen, but in this case, the Publishers Weekly assertion that author Allegra Goodman "deserves to wear Austen's mantle" could not be more apt. Set in the late 1990s, the novel concerns two sisters, Emily and Jess, who are bound together by a sisterly affection that is intensified by the death of their mother during their childhood, but who could not be more dissimilar. Emily, the elder sister, and like Sense & Sensibility's Elinor Dashwood, is the pragmatic, caretaking sister, who makes a fortune riding the cresting wave of the dot.com era as CEO of a tech startup. Younger sister Jess, the novel's Marianne, is a career student, driven by her passion and idealism, living in a communal house with her vaguely suspect tree-sitting boyfriend, and working in an antiquarian bookstore.
The story starts rather slowly, devoting considerable time to each character's introduction and developing a rich backstory that carefully connects them. Emily is getting her startup company off the ground while conducting a long-distance relationship with her go-getting boyfriend; both of them are more dedicated to their careers and rapid success than to the actual relationship which seems to drift along. This contrasts with Jess, who passionately devotes herself to her relationships, to the neglect of her academic career, and who drifts along in her job.
Like the book, both sisters drift along like this for a bit, when the cookbook collection makes its appearance - finally, right when I was beginning to wonder if it ever would - and the story suddenly gains steam and takes off. The antiquarian book dealer who Jess works for, and who quietly admires her but does not act on his desires, learns of an extraordinary collection of rare cookbooks that he hopes to acquire from an estate, with Jess's assistance. As they begin to explore the collection, the writing - especially for those who are passionate about cooking or cookbooks - becomes passionate about its subject and begins to truly soar.
As Jess becomes absorbed by the collection, she also becomes fascinated by the collector - the late man who she never met, who amassed the books and left an array of menus, notes, and sketches within them. She feels haunted by him, much in the same way that she is haunted by her mother, a woman she barely knew in life, but who also left her objects and notes by which to know her in some way.
As the story jumps back and forth between the sisters, so too does the style of writing, in a somewhat subtle fashion - for Jess, immersed in antique books and literature, there are constant literary references carefully woven into the text, and the story lingers gently, almost meditatively with her thoughts as she explores the collection. For Emily, the writing's brisker pace perfectly captures her faster-moving, business-oriented nature.
Despite having lived through events that form the backdrop of the story, I was as astonished by the turn of events at the end as I was when I originally watched them unfold on the news, so swept away was I by the writing and the story.
The Cookbook Collector is a masterful work by a writer who is fully in command of her material: Wonderfully developed, original characters; a story with no ends left loose; and a finely honed, intelligent, yet very accessible style of writing.
*No, I'm not going to tell you how many. A lot. We're both very young at heart!