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Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

The Cookbook Collector is another book based on Sense and Sensibility, only this time set in Boston and Silicon Valley, rather than New York City and Connecticut. Emily and Jess are sisters, one the driven and responsible founder of an internet start-up* and the other a carefree environmentalist. The book follows these two, and their friends, as they struggle with love, identity, family, and what constitutes a successful life.

Like Austen's book, which was in part about finding a balance between, well, sense and sensibility, The Cookbook Collector is suffused with the tension between ideals and reality, the theoretical and the practical, wanting and having, thinking and doing, philosophy and technology, faith and skepticism. Even the kisses are sometimes earthy and passionate, and sometimes "beautiful and abstract, like a theorem to contemplate." The goal, of course, is for the sisters to find the balance between their natures, and they do, but in thoughtful, realistic, imperfect ways. The themes of the book are not original, but Goodman's quietly beautiful writing and heartfelt characterization ensure that the story is engaging.

The story also made me feel nostalgic and emotional in several ways, because for 1999 and 2000 I worked for a law firm in Boston, most of whose clients were high tech outfits and internet start-ups; I remember quite well those days when venture capitalists were throwing money around and the CEOs and CFOs were twentysomethings in jeans and t-shirts. I'm now a librarian, and for a while I was cataloging cookbooks for my library's special collections, some of which were quite old and fascinating. And of course, I was in Manhattan on September 11. The memories these scenes evoked combined with the language and the story to create a book was thoughtful, lush, romantic, melancholic, and totally satisfying.

*Oddly, Goodman chose to name the start-up Veritech. I say oddly, because to those in the know that is a prominent name from the anime Robotech, yet there was absolutely no other trace of geeky/scifi culture in the book (well, except for references to Lord of the Rings by the redwood activists). Instead the book is full of references to poetry** and literature, and characters are interested in internet technology, fine food and wine, and rare books.

**I think I'm going to start keeping track of books that mention listening to mermaids until human voices wake them and they drown.

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