Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I Wish I'd Read The Cookbook Collector Earlier, But It's Never Too Late for These Kinds of Things

Back when I worked at Schwartz as a buyer, I was always thinking a season ahead. By the time a book came out, I was already onto something new. But now, everything I do (with the exception of event planning*), seems to be now, now, now.

This has led me to accept that it's never to read a book, except maybe it's no longer available. But that's hardly the case with Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector. It hasn't even had a holiday selling season.

I already wrote a post on this novel, tieing it into some Jane Austen merchandise we had. Though I'm a fan of Goodman's, I hadn't yet read the book, though I knew, from feedback from other readers, it was quite good. In fact, Dave from Next Chapter talked to me twice about the novel. He knew I was a big fan of Goodman (I've read all the published works for adults in book form, including the stories, but not the kids book) and had praised it as even better than Intuition, her previous novel.

After much pressure, I pronounced it as my favorite book I hadn't read in 2010, much like This is Where I Leave You was for 2009. As these things go, this is all quite arbitrary. I'm sure there was a book I would like even better in both years. But those who do massive research for making grand pronoucements don't have enough time to add the alien juicer to their international cooking table and add a cute little sign that says it's now 25% off, which it is. We have it in red and black.

The first thing I realized after finishing the book is that the title is a bit misleading; the story is not quite as much a foodie paradise as you'd think. Only one sister has a cookbook story arc, and it's not central to much of the story. Jess (short for Jessamine) is a philosophy student at Berkley, a vegan and would-be environmental activist, though her sister Emily would say she flits a bit from cause to cause. Yes, she does work at a second-hand bookstore, and yes, a collection of cookbooks does play into her transformation.

The second thing you need to know is that though the book is that while it plays off of Sense and Sensibilty, it is hardly a play-by-play reenactment (though I guess I should read the original again to make sure, the original that I probably haven't read in 25 years). Jessamine is the Marianne, while the Elinor character in the book is best represented by Emily, the older sister of the family, who is running a tech start-up in the Silicon Valley. She has a boyfriend, Jonathan, that runs a similar sort of business in Cambridge, and both operations are expecting (as this is the late 1990s) to cash in big on an upcoming IPO.

In this way, the story is much like Intuition, which uses a cancer lab as its setting, but at its core is a novel about relationships and honor and well, I could probably say this better if I had a month to put this post together. But both novels use social issues to play off of personal ones. I don't want to give anything away, but the pull of power in the relationships plays off competitive issues in the real world between the couples.

Not that Goodman leaves behind the Jewish themes she explored in her earlier fiction. Both sisters lives are affected by the Bialystocker Rabbis (and brothers-in-law) who have set up shop respectively in Berkley, and in their home town of Canaan. Coincidence yes, but if that bothers you, you should not be reading comedies. It's intrinsic to the plot, so just accept it.

I always thought that Kaaterskill Falls and Paradise Park were like bookends, which each heroine starting from the extremes (complete faith, no faith) and moving towards the center, and what I loved best, was the way that the storylines reflected those themes. I seem to remember Paradise Park was so rambling that I found myself a little dizzy by the end.

Perhaps I loved this book even more because it is more clearly a comedy. Yes, bad things happen, but it ends with a party of some sort, which is sort of in the playbook for these types of novels. It was just the kind of party I love, where you're happy and sad and happy that you read The Cookbook Collector, but sad to see it go. And I feel late about coming to the party, and oh, I so prided myself on being early. But at least I got there before they cut the cake.**

Oh, and now I have to come up with a different pick, for my favorite book of 2010 that I haven't read.

*Usually early, but not always. I've been known to add the right event on at the last minute, like Leah Dobkin's Soul of a Port, for which we're hosting an event on Monday, December 13th. The port involved is the Port of Milwaukee, and the book has an introduction by Mayor Barrett.

**Three cakes, to be exact.

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