Despite the somewhat whimsical title, The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman is anything but. Instead, it’s a finely wrought, detail-rich story about dot.com start-ups, relationships and a collection of old and rare cookbooks.
The blurb reads:
“Two sisters, opposite in every way: twenty-eight-year-old Emily is a CFO of an internet start-up, twenty-three-year-old Jess is a graduate student in philosophy. Pragmatic Emily is making a fortune in Silicon Valley, romantic Jess works in an antiquarian bookstore. Emily’s boyfriend is fantastically successful. Jess’s boyfriend is an environmental activist. But the dot-com bubble must burst, while Jess’s work on a cache of rare cookbooks uncovers strange erotic drawings and marginalia that bring her closer to their mysterious collector… Rich in ideas and characters, The Cookbook Collector is a novel of substitutions: reading cookbooks instead of cooking, speculating instead of creating, collecting instead of living. But above all it is about holding on to what is real in a virtual world: love that lasts.”
This surprising book had been sitting in my TBR stack for quite some time – I had dismissed it as ‘middle-aged-chick-lit’ (mum-lit?) and was waiting for the right time to tackle it – it’s quite hefty at 417 pages. What I didn’t expect was a Franzen-esque style story – beautifully detailed characters, complex histories (but carefully incorporated into the story at appropriate times) and multi-layered plot lines. Goodman probably HATES the Franzen comparison but since finishing this book I have also read lots of reviews that draw Jane Austen comparisons.
Given that I picked up this book as part of my Foodies Reading Challenge, I must make reference to the cookbooks. They are in fact a small part of the story but the descriptions that go along with the cookbooks are superb – lush, foreign and old-fashioned –
“…the word sweet meant ‘unsalted’ in English cookbooks. Sweet meant ‘fresh’, not ‘sugared’ as one might think. She spoke of candying and conserves, and those mysterious syrups in McLintock. Syrup of Violets, Syrup of Clove Gelly-Flowers, Syrup of Red Poppies, Syrup of Pale Roses. How did pale roses taste?”
“Cooks turned pigeons out of pies, plumped veal with tongue and truffle, stuffed bustard with goose, with pheasant, with chicken, with duck, with guinea fowl, with teal, with woodcock, with partridge, with plover, with lapwing, with quail, with thrush, with lark, with garden warbler, so that each bird contained the next, each body enveloping one more delicate in mystic sequence, until at last the cook stuffed the warbler with a single olive, as though revelers might finally taste music, arriving at this round placeholder for breath and open voice. Edible decibels. Savory olive for sweet song. Modern recipes were clean and bloodless by comparison, suppressing violence between cook and cooked. Not so here. Truss them…, lard them, boil them quick… All verbs in the imperative: Raise the skin; tie up the necks; parboil them; roast them. Adjectives sparing, nouns succulent and rich, bespeaking bacon and crisp skin curling from roast fowl.”
I really wish I had kept a running list of the cookbooks mentioned in the novel so that I could find out firstly whether they exist and secondly, more about them. I actually emailed Goodman and asked for a list of the books she referred to but to date, I have not heard from her – stay tuned.
Goodman’s delicate style is consistent and I thoroughly enjoyed the way she embedded lush detail in so many descriptions (all the more brilliant when the detail provided contrast to the hard, modern dot.com and business world) –
“She craved his company. The edges of her life were ragged, her feelings conflicted, her behaviours incoherent, probably immoral, and at the same time, she was deeply happy, consuming nectarines, and Asian pears, sliced thin, and the pinot he poured for her.”
“Like a beautiful diver, the Nasdaq bounced three times into the air and flipped, somersaulting on the way down. Tech stocks once priced at two hundred, and then seventy-three, and then twenty-one, now sold for less than two dollars a share. Companies valued in the billions were worth jut millions, and with a blood rush, investors thought, So this is gravity, this is free fall.”
There were perhaps one too many twists in the story toward the end for my liking and a couple of coincidences that I suggest you just accept and read on (otherwise you may be really annoyed) – they were nearly all plausible but not necessary. The characters had won me over by that stage and I didn’t need stuff to happen to them for the book to finish satisfactorily (and I suspect that it’s the ending that has driven the Austen comparisons).
4/5 This book surprised me on many levels – a real delight and I look forward to reading more from Goodman.
There are so, so many wonderful, exotic recipes described in this book. Rather than picking out just one, I’ve drawn inspiration from a reference to ‘jessamine water’ – further research suggests that this is actually another name for jasmine. So I’ve selected this decadent summer recipe – Poached White Peaches with Jasmine-tea Snow.