The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman

Allegra Goodman's novel The Cookbook Collector has been widely compared to Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Sadly, I have always found Sense and Sensibility much easier to admire than actually enjoy, so I opened The Cookbook Collector with trepidation.

Like Sense and Sensibility, The Cookbook Collector is the story of two sisters with with diametrically opposed temperaments. It's 1999, and twenty-eight-year-old Emily is the CEO of an up-and-coming tech company. Her little sister Jess is a philosophy grad student who divides her time between passing out environmental pamphlets and working part-time in a antiquarian bookstore. Over the next three years (the book covers both the 9/11 attacks and 2002 stock market downturn), the sisters struggle to accept and understand each other, despite wildly different tastes, ambitions, and values.

Goodman would probably prefer her book be judged solely on its own merits, but The Cookbook Collector borrows too heavily from Austen's novel to avoid some unflattering comparisons. Unlike, say, Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones books, The Cookbook Collector is a straightforward, painstaking attempt to explore some of the issues Austen dealt with in her own writing: love, money, family, ambition. Unfortunately, Goodman's primary love story is built around a male protagonist whom I found both unsympathetic and implausible—it's tough for me to feel much of a connection with a dreamy 39-year-old millionaire who really wants to get married, but somehow only dates women who are certifiably insane. (Seriously. Let me get out my teeny-tiny violin...)

To be fair, Goodman is an intelligent, graceful writer, and I liked elements of her story—mostly the historical cookbook bits and the lyrical descriptions of food. (I always like reading about food.) And while I thought the book featured way too many non-essential characters, Goodman has a gift for bringing even her most minor characters to life with speed and skill. If I was a bigger Sense and Sensibility fan, I might have found this modern reworking more enjoyable—as it is, I can only give it a lukewarm "readable enough".

Review based on a publisher-provided copy.
Posted by: Julianka


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