Allegra Goodman's sixth novel, The Cookbook Collector, takes place just a decade ago, but the irrationally exuberant world she describes feels as remote from our own as the vicarages of Jane Austen. The year is 1999 and dot-com startups are spawning overnight multimillionaires, among them Emily Bach, one of the novel's two winning young heroines.
Not yet 30, Emily runs a Silicon Valley data storage company that's about to go public and make her very, very rich. A conscientious worrier by nature, Emily feels vaguely uneasy about wealth achieved so easily. Her boyfriend, Jonathan, has equally great expectations for his own startup, but no such qualms: He's too busy daydreaming about Lamborghinis. Like one of the dashing suitors who surface early in an Austen novel, Jonathan may or may not prove himself worthy of soulful Emily. In Goodman's world, finding a suitable match is every bit as tricky and vital (if not quite so fiscally vital) as it was in Austen's.
Meanwhile, Emily's 23-year-old sister, Jess — "the less responsible sister, the whimsical daughter, the girl with the fly-away hair" — is following a different path through life. Actually, Jess is following no discernible path at all, and watching her meander is one of the joys of the tale. Cheerful, impecunious and mercurial, Jess studies philosophy, volunteers with a fringe environmental group and drifts from boyfriend to unsuitable boyfriend. She also works at an overstuffed antiquarian bookstore, a magical hideaway owned by an acerbic 39-year-old Microsoft millionaire named George.
The novel's title alludes to a magnificent collection of antique cookbooks — "guides for elevating and intensifying earthly pleasure" — that George decides to buy from the estate of a mysterious collector. As the world goes through the terrible upheavals of 2000 and 2001, George and Jess catalog and study these ravishing volumes — and go through some sweet changes of their own.
Goodman has shoehorned in a handful of distracting subplots, including the implausible appearance and reappearance of a Hasidic sect at crucial junctures in the action. But she is a graceful writer and such an uncommonly astute observer of human foibles that when she focuses her steady gaze on the daily lives of the Bach sisters, her novel is pure delight.