A Review: The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

The Cookbook Collector was one title I sought for quite some time before receiving it as a Christmas gift last December.  Aside from the fact that the story focused on two sisters, with opposite personalities, and a likening to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, I didn’t know what the plot of the text would offer. 
I’ve tried, increasingly, to walk away from books that don’t encourage any sort of attachment; yet, I find that some titles are really hard to put down.  The Cookbook Collector is one of those titles. 
I can’t say I particularly gushed over the novel when talking with friends.  I suggested they might read it, because the storyline was interesting enough, and it definitely had something to say about American culture and the boom of the dotcom industry in the late 90s.
So, where do I begin?
So many issues for a four hundred page book.  So many characters.
I’ll admit that at points I found it difficult to remember certain characters and their relationship to the main ensemble. I found that there were so many ideals wrapped into a such a tiny package. The author bombards the reader with many sudden realizations: Emily’s rise to multimillionaire status overnight; Jess and her dependence on others for identity, as well as, her struggle to be taken seriously; George and his lack of love; Jonathan and his inability to stay true to his word even if means not being on top; Orion and his, well, that guy had so much going on.  The author discusses many cultural issues/social developments, such as: the rise of the internet domain, September 11th, gay rights, environmentalism and veganism.  Meanwhile, each character is dealing with their own inner turmoil created by the development of issues, like: the pressure to stay ahead of the curve, the inability to define one’s self/stand up for one’s goals, death and loss, maintaining relationships, trust, identity, etc.  It’s almost overwhelming witnessing the rollercoaster of emotions experienced by each of the six key players.
Then, there’s the fact that the author almost loses me with a cast of borderline ridiculous female characters.
Meet Emily, an MIT graduate, that's involved in the revolution of data storage, in a relationship with Jonathan, who is on his way to becoming equally succesful. While the audience is never led to believe that Emily’s company is less successful than Jonathan’s, she, for whatever reason, is the individual walking away from her CEO position to start a family, purchase a home and move across the country to be with him.  She faces this very difficult position, although not developed for certain reasons, when she must decide if she wants a family or she wants to continue working.  Although these issues were more relevant at this period, when America saw a shift of housewives leaving homes for corporate positions, it was disappointing to see such a powerful female figure second guessing her decision to follow through with her own goals once faced with a terrible tragedy. Perhaps realistic, but also disheartening.
Jess, Emily’s sister, is quite the opposite. She’s alienated by her father for leading a “lackadaisical” life, spending her days in Berkeley reading about the lives of Hegel and Kant.  She studies philosophy and is an active environmentalist, living in a “tree house” commune of sorts, whose organizers chain themselves to trees while starving, and nests in the canopies of the redwoods.  Jess is also noted as moving from relationship to relationship, desiring passion, or just someone to share in her ideals.  She’s sensitive, intelligent and interested in the ways of the world outside of her bubble.  She is portrayed as impractical, and again, ostracized for harboring interests in the humanities, as opposed to the very practical, mathematical/money-making experiences her father and sister enjoy.  The generally accepted notion that philanthropic endeavors are not as legitimate as other career endeavors, or even, practical modes of thinking in terms of participating in the global landscape, is quite on point.  However, the author displays Jess as capricious and somewhat unsure that she’s actually passionate about any of her interests.  Jess’s identity confusion, while typical, is almost a cartoon. Jess never faces her fears, she leaves the canopy after a dizzy spell, and retreats.
I enjoyed the dialogue between the characters.  I liked the author’s presentation of the inner turmoil resounding with each character, and her exercise of multiple perspectives, while intense and only slightly confusing, was realistic and believable.   
I feel the author tried to tackle too many issues in one volume; although, I respected the references to the previous two decades.  I almost feel you could compare the work to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; however, I am by no means saying that The Cookbook Collector measures up to the great classical work. Of course, Tolstoy’s use of language and description is superior by a long shot, the fact that both texts explore individual emotions that run parallel to societal shifts at such lengths is quite similar.
All in all, I enjoyed the novel.


  1. You're review makes me want to read Anna Karenina!

  2. Brenna- Anna Karenina is a must. It's definitely one of my top ten favorite novels.

  3. So, your review is spot on - and I have so many other things I would want to write about but can't because it would completely 'spoil' the book for anyone that hasn't read it. I find it interesting that I could be so frustrated with a book on so many levels and still enjoy it on many other levels. You may have described your experience before as love/hate, I can't remember, but that's a perfect summation of my relationship with the novel.

  4. I lοve it ωhеnever people сome tоgether and share ideas.
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