There's a luscious party scene about two-thirds of the way through The Cookbook Collector in which a group of young-ish, very clever people gather in an exquisite mansion in Northern California. Champagne and strawberries are served, and the afternoon light turns golden as the day wanes. That scene, for me, captures the overall mood and appeal of Allegra Goodman's new novel: It's shimmering and astute and a little melancholy. In short, it's a midsummer's dream of a novel — there's even a nearby enchanted forest thrown in (in this case, filled with giant California redwoods rather than Arden's ferns and faeries.)
The Cookbook Collector is about all kinds of appetites — for love, and sex, and God and money, and, of course, food. The story revolves around two sisters: Jess, a beautiful 23-year-old graduate student in philosophy, hops impulsively from passion to passion. In contrast, we're told that Jess's older sister, Emily, is "possessed of a serene rationality." At only 28, Emily is the multimillionaire CEO of a dot-com startup. If that flighty sister vs. level-headed sister premise sounds familiar, it should. Goodman herself has called her latest novel "A Sense and Sensibility for the Digital Age." I confess, if anyone other than Allegra Goodman had made that claim, I very likely would have tossed my review copy away. I am very weary of the literary fad of contemporary authors shoplifting plots and characters from the 19th-century fiction warehouse. Poor Jane Austen, in particular, has been plucked clean. If you don't know what I'm talking about, check out your local bookstore where you'll find the latest violations, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Is there no shame?
But Goodman, as she always does, makes a believer out of this skeptic. Goodman says of one of her characters, a brilliant computer programmer, that "he had an acquisitive intelligence, and when he appropriated an idea, he improved it, until his own version ... obliterated its source." Of course, I wouldn't go that insanely far in praising Goodman's update of Austen, but I will say that this homage quickly comes to have a glorious life of its own.
Jess, the faint reincarnation of impulsive Marianne Dashwood, bicycles around the Berkeley of the 1990s (when the novel is set), flitting from philosophy to veganism to tree saving. When Jess begins working part-time at a used and rare bookstore called Yorick's, run by a wealthy, single, middle-aged man called George, we Austen-savvy readers anticipate that wedding bells may eventually ring. But not before fresh complications ensue — especially because Jess is already involved with a charismatic radical environmentalist. Here's George musing resentfully at the sight of Jess and her hipster boyfriend: "Why was it [George asked himself] that the youngest, most innocent-looking women consorted with the creepiest men? Their boyfriends were not boys or friends at all, but shadowy familiars: bears, wolfhounds, panthers."
George himself has buried his own animal appetites in books, although Jess' entry into his life — and the incursion of the Internet into the book trade — is making George rethink his monastic ways and the all-too-rare pleasures of reuniting a customer with a long-sought-after copy of, say, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Goodman's nimble language, usually displayed in her characters' sharp readings of one another, is one of the great pleasures of her writing. The other is her ability to integrate serious metaphysical questions into her entertaining comedies of manners. The way in which The Cookbook Collector ultimately veers off from a mere riff on Sense and Sensibility raises crucial doubts about the value of a well-ordered life, as well as the existence of a benevolent God. In Austen's original, Elinor, the practical one, was rewarded for having two feet on the ground. That was the late Enlightenment talking through Austen. But here, in Goodman, Modernity pulls the rug out from under Emily's feet.