Monday, August 9, 2010

Allegra Goodman recreates the world we almost lost on 9/11

I read just one review of this novel before ordering it for myself. Since then I have seen other reviews, always full of praise, but also with a note of resignation: this story, we suppose, just had to be told. I didn’t really understand what those reviewers meant. But now I do.

The Cookbook Collector

Allegra Goodman’s richly evocative novel, The Cookbook Collector (X pages, Press, $$), takes us back before the events of 9/11 to the tech mania of the late nineties. Set in both the San Francisco Bay Area, including Silicon Valley, and Boston/Cambridge, the novel centers on two sisters, Emily and Jess(amine) Bach. Emily is the CEO of a high tech company, Veritech, which is about to go public. Jess is a faltering grad student in Philosophy. She and Emily are close, but Emily cannot really understand what Jess is doing with her life. Jess is uneasy herself, but she really does not want to live life on Emily’s or anyone else’s terms.

Emily’s long distance boyfriend, Jonathan, is the CEO of his own company, in Boston, ISIS. Each of these companies is successful in its way, but when Emily’s goes public, the sky seems to be the limit. The stock price goes up and up and all the members of the company realize wealth unimaginable just month before. Gazillionaires, they keep calling themselves, because they have no other language for what is happening to them. Jonathan’s company is not there yet, but he is even more ruthlessly ambitious then Emily. When she confides her company’s next move, it is all he can do to keep himself from betraying her trust immediately.

Both Emily’s and Jonathan’s companies are peopled with the hyper-smart and unbelievably young types who in any other culture would still be students. Instead, they are leading some kind of cultural revolution, and they know it. Orion, Jonathan’s friend, is smart and committed, but he worries about where his ideas are taking him. Sorel, an English girl who works with him, sees all this high tech stuff as her day job, as she tries to build a career as a performance artist. Emily’s company, too, has a cast of fascinating characters, from her personal assistant Laura to her own assemblage of brilliant physicists and programmers who have left other careers in order to soar with her.

Meanwhile, Jess finds herself working part-time in a second hand bookstore in Berkeley. Her boss, George, himself a product of the tech revolution, is wealthy and retired and able to amuse himself with collecting books. He and Jess get on—she is smart enough to stand up to him, and he is smart enough to challenge her on her own level—and as their working relationship becomes more complicated, he finds that he is falling in love with her.

The key to his attraction is her involvement with an amazing cookbook collection that he comes upon in his book dealing. When he asks Jess to help him persuade the seller to part with the collection, and then again when he asks her to catalog the collection, he realizes what a complete treasure she is.

Jess, though, is deeply involved with the head of the Save the Redwoods foundation, and she finds herself drawn north to be with the darkly handsome Leon, who wants her to embrace his cause.
Into this assortment of interests and tensions fall the tragic events of September 11, 2001. It is a date that involves all these characters in different ways. Some characters lose their lives; others lose everything that they had built; and everyone who survives feels like she or he have to rediscover who they are.

Allegra Goodman brings this novel to a beautiful conclusion. One might think some of her moves are a bit melodramatic, but she is telling us about an age that can only be described in terms of melodrama. The wedding at the end of the novel is truly moving. This is a novel to savor.

Allegra Goodman

Get your copy of The Cookbook Collector at Vroman's, Powell's or Amazon.

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