88 of 90 people found the following review helpful
on September 10, 2010
I don't write a lot of reviews but wanted to comment on this book. When I came to the review page and saw how thoroughly and how well both the good and the bad about the novel had already been covered, I wasn't sure I had much more to contribute. But maybe I'll add just a few thoughts/points.
I found the Goodman's writing style quite engaging, and lovely at times. And I got involved with the main characters --though some of them were not very likable, they were very human -- and cared about their stories.
I agree with those who have said she tried to cover too many characters and story arcs, and to pull together too many themes and ideas. There were many threads left hanging, and for some of those that were tied up in the denouement, we didn't learn enough about how things came to pass. It seems like there was enough going on here for more than one book. Some of the story lines and ideas worked together, and some felt out of place. Some were over-developed, and some under.
I also agree that some of the coincidences strained credulity, and felt unearned. Who doesn't know their mother's maiden name, for example? This detail comes up early in the book, and only someone who has never read a novel wouldn't figure out what is being set up. And as a Bay Area native, some inaccuracies really bugged me. On their date at Greens, George "had the fish?" Only if he brought it and cooked it himself. And polenta at this restaurant, chosen because Jess is a vegan, would be packed with butter and cheese -- vegetarian but not vegan. Maybe this seems like too small an issue to criticize, but much is made of Jess' veganism. The book is full of detail about Berkeley. And it's also, in part, about cookbooks, and about food and the meaning of food. How hard would it have been to research the menu of a world-famous vegetarian restaurant that is practically as San Francisco institution? That glaring error seemed terribly lazy on the part of the writer and the editors to me.
Nitpicking aside, I also want to comment on the criticism for bringing 9/11 into the plot. I have no problem with that at all -- in fact, I think it really had to happen. The dotcom boom and bust is the backdrop for the story, and that era and its effects on people is certainly worth attention. 9/11 was a pivotal event of the times, and everyone was deeply affected by it. It seems very natural that the characters would be.
I enjoyed this novel while reading it, but in the end didn't feel it lived up to its potential.
142 of 154 people found the following review helpful
on June 17, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Forget the Austen comparison. Nothing compares to Austen anyway, and it obscures the many real virtues of this broadly scoped novel.
Allegra Goodman has always mixed romance, work, and Jewishness in her novels and this one follows the pattern. She's got a contrasted pair of sisters who become more like one another as the novel goes on. She's got a beautifully drawn June-November romance (neither half quite qualifies as May or December). She's got a dead mother whose life conceals a mystery, and she's got a set of quick views of different types of Jewishness - including one rather unexpected type that I don't want to spoil for you by revealing here. Her picture of bookstore life in Berkeley is fun to read, too, and if you like to read about collectible books you'll get a bellyful - semipun intended.
Best of all, she gets the tech startup stuff right. Both of the startups she depicts are familiar to this veteran of two tech startups. Some of her programmers even talk like programmers, and she paints the startup highflyer response to technical crisis just right. And she avoids the pitfall of writing overly explicit dialog for her programmers, so she doesn't get that wrong. Good judgement on her part. Her Bay Area details are right. I don't know enough to judge her Boston details.
And she manages to include 9/11 without bathos. I hope we see more books that incorporate 9/11 without exploiting it or centering on it.
There ARE some faults here. A few characters get short shrift in the shifting romances. Goodman probably tries to do too many things in one novel. There are too many up to the minute brand and culture references for a novel that has a chance of surviving and being read after this decade or century is past. The political commune is not convincing. There are a couple of credulity-straining coincidences that you'll just have to accept and go on. Someone once said that a novel can stand one major and one minor coincidence, but I think this one overexploits its allowance. And I don't get the title, which seems to apply only to part of the book.
But there are also gems. Convincing scenes of delicate romantic approach, and the final scene is outstanding. The writing itself is mostly swift, knowing and delicate.
If you've enjoyed other Goodman books you'll like this one too. If you haven't read Goodman, this or the previous one (Intuition) are good places to start.
29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
As a Janeite, it is impossible ignore the siren call when an author announces to the book buying world that her new novel THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR is "a SENSE AND SENSIBILTY for the digital age." Whoa! My first reaction was "this is literary suicide." Why would anyone want to equate themselves to a beacon of world literature such as JANE AUSTEN?
It is impossible to know her personal motivations, but after a bit of online research, I can't entirely blame Allegra Goodman for starting this avalanche. She seems to be the darling of the literary world ready to be embraced as "a modern day Jane Austen." Booklist, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus all gave her starred reviews, and even those highbrow literary bluestockings The Washington Post and the New York Times beamed. Swept up in the momentum of online praise I succumbed to the unthinkable. I imagined, no, dare I say I hoped, "as I had scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before" that my favorite author could be reincarnated in the modern day world and I could continue to read new works infused with Austen's style, deft observations and biting wit.
I will attempt to disarm reproof right up front. I read a lot of "popular" fiction written by women. Yep, that stuff that is sadly overlooked by the good folks at The New York Times. This book is technically classified as literature which is really out of my depth as a book reviewer, so I will review it through the prism of a Janeite. Set in northern California between 1999-2002 Goodman has mirrored elements in Austen's novel SENSE AND SENSIBILITY including two sisters, Emily and Jessamine Bach, polar opposites in temperament and interests struggling with love, money and fulfillment in different ways.
Twenty-eight year old Emily is the sensible, pragmatic older sister who graduated from M.I.T. and is the co-founder and CEO of Veritech, a start-up computer data-storage company in the Silicon Valley on the brink of going public (obviously the Elinor Dashwood character). Jess is a twenty-three year old idealistic Berkeley graduate student in philosophy committed to saving the environment and rushing heart first into life and romance (yep, Marianne Dashwood). She works part-time at an antiquarian bookstore named Yorick's owned by George Freidman (Colonel Brandon without the flannel waistcoat), a first generation Microsoft millionaire who retired early and now passionately collects, filling his life with beautiful objects instead of people. Pushing forty, George is handsome, haughty and cynical, "hard to please, and difficult to surprise." He and Jess do not see eye-to-eye on much of anything and their conversations turn to sparing matches over books, her tree-hugging philosophies and looser boyfriends (Leon, the Willoughby character). She cherishes books for what they can teach you. He values books because others want them and they are his. "[H]ow sad, he thought, that desire found new objects but did not abate, that when it came to longing there was no end."
Emily has her own set of values and desires. She loves her high-tech job, money and power, and is continually postponing her wedding date to accommodate their consuming needs. She is in a bi-coastal relationship with Jonathan Tilghman fellow dot-com genius who is also in the start-up phase of his computer company in Cambridge, MA. She works long hours, dreams of marriage and children while her ambitions push her need to succeed over love. Emily has looked after her little sister Jess since their mother's death from breast cancer thirteen years ago. Concerned over her finances Emily presses Jess to purchase her company's family and friends stock offering for $1,800 telling her she must find the cash herself. Hesitant to tap her father for the funds, Jess connects with a local Bialystock rabbi she meets through a neighbor and secures a loan. He is altruistic, not expecting repayment claiming he is investing in her future and not to make money. On the first day of trading her sister becomes a multi-millionaire, but any of you who remember the roller-coaster stock market of the new millennium know where this story is going.
The narrative moseys along through chapters of dot-com start-up details veering off on tangents with characters we don't really need to know and do not care about until about half way through when George happens upon the rare book dealers Holy Grail. A large and incredible unique collection of old cookbooks stashed in the kitchen cupboards of a deceased Berkeley professor of Lichenology whose heir promised him never to sell, but is hard up for cash. Jess assists in wooing the quirky owner with a bit of intuition and psychology which pleases George, who has a new collection to add to his collection, but what he really wants to possess is Jess!
Full of dot-com detail and an interesting juxtaposition of analytical verses intuitive personalities, my expectations for THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR were so high that half way through the book I needed to take stock and reassess. Like Austen, Goodman's characters are genuine, quirky and endearingly flawed but she spent too many pages wavering away from the ones I wanted to know more about: Jessamine, Emily and the two men in their lives that I questioned where she was going and why this was important far too often. The most intriguing character hands down was Jessamine, and like Austen's Marianne Dashwood she is whimsical, openhearted and trusting. You know that she is heading for a fall, but love her all the more for it. How Jess the tree-huger and George the dishy curmudgeon will eventually come together, and we do know from the start that they will, is as satisfying as a seven course meal at Auberge du Soleil.
THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR is a romantic comedy with some social reproof stirred in for spice. It is rewarding if you have the patience for a bit of sideways adventure in the shallow high-tech dot-com world of ambitious risk-takers with mega-millionaire dreams. Goodman's prose can be lyrical, alluring and very seductive. Interwoven are great moments of tantalizing descriptions of food and wine. I will never think about eating a peach again without remembering Jess and George. There are some unexpected twists and far-fetched coincidences that added surprise and whimsy, but crowning Ms Goodman the next Jane Austen? "[E]very impulse of feeling should be guided by reason; and, in my opinion, exertion should always be in proportion to what is required."
Laurel Ann, Austenprose
37 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on December 1, 2010
My entire career was in research and high-tech (though with semiconductors not software). This included time in the milieu of high-tech startup companies. Research, high-tech, and startups could provide fodder for some good novels. With "The Cookbook Collector" as with her previous novel, "Intuition", Allegra Goodman has NOT written these novels.
"Cookbook Collector" is peopled with off-the-shelf stereotypes--the ethical entrepreneur, the unethical entrepreneur, nerdy engineers, socially clueless engineers, dumb and unethical MBA's, the early retiree whose moderate eccentricity is funded from Microsoft-era stock-options, the responsible sister, the irresponsible sister, the dead mother with a hidden past, the Berkeley environmental nut-jobs with alley-cat morals, the all-wise and jolly rabbi with a heart-of-gold, etc., etc., etc. Generally, the characters seem plausible but not very real to me. They almost seem like a cast assembled for a video game or some other kind of simulation.
Likewise, the book has a number of settings which, to me, seem to be used somewhat for a certain name-dropping cachet, to further stereotype the characters, and to avoid building specific cases by again simulating. Berkeley, Palo Alto (and Silicon Valley), and Cambridge--shorthand for places with certain kinds of people. Similarly, the author drops a lot of "insy" details or names, often correctly, to plausibly simulate situations within and around the dotcom milieu.
Another annoyance is that major turning points revolve around cliche events or ridiculous coincidence. Two major characters,Emily and Jonathan, have dotcom startups in the late 1990's--foreshadowing as subtle as a sledgehammer. Following the dotcom meltdown, we get served 9/11 as a main plot event. (Does that sound to you like something that Jane Austen would have stooped to?) Finally, there are coincidences piled on top of coincidences ripe for an old-style MAD Magazine parody. Emily's "irresponsible" sister, Jess, meets up with the jolly, heart-of-gold, all-wise rabbi in Berkeley. The rabbi's wife's sister is married to another rabbi and lives on the East Coast--Sharon, Massachusetts to be precise. And, guess what, the remarried father of Emily and Jess also lives in Sharon, Massachusetts. Nuff said; earlier I carried this through to a spoiler. Sorry.
Thus far, I haven't even gotten around to the meaning of the title "The Cookbook Collector"--but that's another story. And there's the rub; the author tries to keep 4 or 5 stories going without doing a very good job on any one of them.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on December 29, 2010
Whoever compared this writer to Jane Austen needs to reread Austen. Goodman writes with a heavy hand, first framing an awkward metaphor and then explaining it. Characters are ill-defined (and sometimes superfluous), plots muddy, outcomes predictable. Of course the flighty, scarcely employed sister finds true love (with a wealthy man, of course) while the corporate hard-driving sister ends up with nothing. Isn't that how it always works out? And the whole notion of the "cookbook collector" gets stuck in somewhere in the middle, with no real connection to the plot. Was it contrived to produce a title that would sell? Skip this book. Rereading Pride and Prejudice, even for the 12th time, would be more satisfying.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on March 24, 2011
I was so looking forward to this book - I have enjoyed Goodman's other works immensely. But my reaction to "The Cookbook Collector"? A mixture of anger and boredom. Both sisters irritated me, as much as one-dimensional stereotypes can. The dot.com story has been told - and far better than here. And I don't mind a book with lots of characters, except here, none interested me in the least. The only enlightening tidbit was learning that "Bialystok" (or "Bialystock") is more than just a funny name for a character in "The Producers."
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on January 3, 2011
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
It takes the almost half the book to get a connection to the title. And then it is hardly seems to be what the book is really about. It's more about life in Silicon Valley. And a group of rather uninteresting self-absorbed techies. And a Microsoft millionaire who has a bookstore. And a philosophy graduate student. And to top it off an off the beaten path Jewish group who coincidentally appear at key moments in the prime characters' lives. Allegra Goodman clearly was inspired by antique cookbooks. But she utterly fails. It could have been so much better if she had retained her focus on the cookbooks, and not the periphery. And, any detail would give away too much, but the extent of coincidences, both with historical references and otherwise, is absurd. The only redeeming feature is that Allegra Goodman writes well. So, the unfocused mish mosh is readable. Albeit, very unsatisfying.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on December 23, 2010
I was largely dissatisfied with this book, but I wasn't quite sure why until someone asked me what it was about and I realized that it was about too many things.
What was the real story here? The title would indicate it was about George, but it didn't seem to be. Was the real story Jess and Emily? Jess and George? Emily and Jonathan? What about the dead mother? Or the Jewishness? or the tree sitters or the dot-com development. No matter what the answer is, there was too much of the book about things that were not relevent. Some of the characters who got a lot of lineage (like Orion) seemed to have no impact on the real story at all, and I wondered why they had been included at all.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on April 4, 2011
Emily and Jessamine Bach are sisters and are 5 years apart. Their mother passed away when Emily was 10, leaving Emily to look after her younger sister.They were raised in Massachusetts but now live in California, Silicon Valley.
Emily took after her father, getting a degree at MIT and is now the CEO of Veritech, a dot.com company about to go public. Jess is still in college, a graduate student in philosophy, and is having a hard time writing her dissertation and getting through the courses. She is a woman of nature: vegan, environmentalist, involved with an organization that is trying to save the trees by sleeping in the redwoods so they cannot be chopped down. Emily's boyfriend, Jonathan, is in his own dot.com security start up business and lives in Massachusetts.They maintain a long distance relationship. Jess's boyfriends run in her circle, with no real future, as in job security.
Jess applies for a job at an antiquarian bookstore, whose owner, George, made his fortune in Microsoft, retiring early. George is about 16 years older than Jess. He doesn't understand or share Jess's ideas, but he seems to enjoy questioning her and getting her ire going. Jess treasures book, the paper, and the words printed. Whereas, George takes pride in collecting them. In fact, his home is its own museum of collections. George has the opportunity to buy a cookbook collection from the niece of the collector after his death. It is a collection no one has ever seen as it dates back to the 1700's. The book is also filled with the collector's personal menus and drawings. Once the collection is obtained, Jess delves in to categorizing the collection and a stronger bond forms between George and Jess.
When Emily's company is about to go public, Jess needs $1800.00 to buy her shares for the company. Instead of asking her father for the money, She borrows it from a Bialystok Rabbi whom she met from a neighbor. She begins to attend classes at his Synagogue. He also just happens to have a sister and brother-in-law Rabbi who lives in Jess's hometown in MA. This is where the author starts to add to many characters, story lines, and uncanny coincidences to the book, ending up with the two sisters learning more about their mother.
The book is heralded as a modern-day Jane Austen. We only thought the similarity is that there are two sisters with boyfriends. This is no Jane Austen. One of the main points of this book just may be the difference in what is tangible and what isn't. For example, the dot.com owners and investors became millionaires with intangible wealth, it is just numbers on paper, whereas, George has wealth in his tangible investments.
Our main question was this, Why is this book titled the Cookbook Collector?
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on April 3, 2011
The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman is not at all about what the title might suggest. It is not about cooking; it is about studying cooking by reading instead of actually cooking. But it's not even about that either - it's about yearning for meaning in life, for something tangible, but finding oneself unable to get up and do anything about it. It's about getting stuck in our own inner mayhems, unable to act, to break free, to move forward. It's about being on the outside, looking in.
Longings - of love, of wealth, of answers, of meaning - plague the characters in the book, only most of the time they don't even realize that's the case. It's been at least a decade since I've read or watched Sense and Sensibility, the novel along which this story is loosely based. It is the tale of two sisters completely different in temperament and aspiration, five years apart in age but eons apart in personality, during the rise and fall of the early dotcoms pre- and post- 9/11. Only, we merge in and out of peripheral characters lives and viewpoints, to the point that the picture we have of the sisters, Jessamine and Emily, are mostly that of the men that love them, and so we are also left feeling we are on the outside, looking in, only seeing the surface of people and situations.
Goodman's language is liltingly poignant, insightful and highly quotable, with sentences like
"How sad, he thought, that desire found new objects but did not abate, that when it came to longing there was no end."
"He could read her face, even as she became a stranger to him."
The book also openly discusses wealth, young wealth, and monetary, financial motivations against spiritual, socially progressive motivations. However, it only discusses wealth from the point of view of the very privileged, very wealthy perspective. The closest we get to financial problems is at the beginning of the novel, Jess is a grad student - of philosophy, and doesn't happen to have $1800 lying around to buy her sisters stock. This is seen by her older, incredibly intelligent, highly successful and fantastically fortunate older sister as a failing on her part to grow up. Either my experience is drastically different from everyone else's, or it's a pretty normal thing for a 23-year-old graduate student to not have a substantial cash reserve in the bank. It's also pretty normal to have not 'grown up' by age 23. And so, while the actual acknowledgment of money as existing was nice, it fell quite flat in that in the end, and like The Social Network, it turned out to be a young millionaire's playground.
Emily's naivete, at 30 by the end of the novel, proved somewhat unbelievable, especially given that she is the CEO of her own company, graduated MIT, and is a multi-millionaire. Reality normally reveals itself in some form or another, through heartbreak, through betrayal by family or friends or lovers, even through things occasionally just not working out according to expectation - that has to happen, at least on some level, by the time you're 28, or 30. We all interact with humans, right? For Emily, reality never manages to even scratch her surface, apparently, until later. She has Jonathan, an Abercrombie, viciously ambitious and very unlikable boyfriend on the other side of the country, dealing with a similar dot com venture, and the relationship never quite makes sense, unless somehow the distance manages to mask true personalities.
My main point of bother with the modern plot was that as CEO of her own company in Silicon Valley, with Jonathan starting and running his company over in Boston, when they talk of the future, the only option to make the relationship work is for her to quit her job and move across the country to be with him. That the converse might occur is not an option. It is not discussed. It is not even mentioned as a point of contention. Even when she puts off moving, making excuses and dragging her expensively clad feet, even then, even in her own private musings, it is not once mentioned as a point of resentment. For such a successful, entrepreneurial, intelligent and "inventive" young woman, even as naive as she is colored, that the issue never comes up is a bit negligent in the plot development. At least include a fight about it, a logical, rational reason that it should be she that moves and not vice versa. But we, as readers, are not given that.
Despite my now seemingly heavy criticism, and despite the flaws I perceived, I actually enjoyed the novel, and was compelled to keep reading. The writing, the language, is superb. Lyrical. It captures much of the discontent and discomfort of that time, as well as the strange realization as youth merges with adulthood that life will never, ever be quite what we'd expected. The discussion of greed and wavering stock markets is all the more relevant after the crash of 2008. The dialogue is scripted, of course, but cleverly, meaningfully so. Because it's been too long since I've read S&S, I can't speak to the legitimacy of the comparison.
The themes are interesting, if not entirely fleshed out, due to the overabundance of character viewpoints in the first half of the book. The ending is satisfying on many levels. That the men somehow manage to take the focus away from the women, in a book about women, is a little strange - but in this world, the plot device might be a clever take on our current culture, and how little it differs from the societal limitations of Jane Austen's time - how far we've come and how far we haven't.