Book reviews and book jackets can be pretty liberal about comparing authors to Jane Austen. When that happens, they often only succeed at driving committed Jane-ites away, but here's a book that actually lives up to that comparison.
Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector has much of what Jane Austen is most loved for: admirable and lovable heroines, ridiculous and foolish characters, and love stories that must overcome the impediments both society and fortune place in their path. And there's also food.
Goodman tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that she is flattered to be compared to an artist she loves, but, she says, "I'm my own woman also, and I've had many influences on my work."
Still, there are some undeniable similarities. Much like Austen's Sense and Sensibility, The Cookbook Collector focuses on two sisters who have very different ways of seeing the world.
"The older Emily is definitely seemingly the more rational, pragmatic of the two." Goodman says. "[She's the] CEO of a startup company in dot-com-boom Silicon Valley. And her younger sister ... Jess, is seemingly the more whimsical, dreamy of the pair: a graduate student in philosophy at Berkeley and a part-time worker at an antiquarian bookstore."
Goodman follows the sisters' lives from the fall of 1999 to the spring of 2002 because she says she wanted to set their story in a time of economic unrest.
"It was such a fraught time and so much happened," Goodman says. "So I was essentially writing a historical novel about the very recent past, and I was interested in the way these events — especially the booming economy and the bursting of the [dot-com] bubble — would affect individual people. It's a period that is well-documented by economists and sociologists and historians. But as a novelist, I thought, 'What I can contribute is to write about this from the inside.' "
Goodman uses unexpected devices to explore the importance to her characters of both material and immaterial things. One such device comes in the form a collection of early-modern cookbooks and its curators — or collectors — which include Jess's boss, the antiquarian bookseller, who lusts after the cookbooks.
"The book is very much one about collecting and possession," Goodman says. "It's a book about hunger for objects, for money, for fame, for new technology, for knowledge, and also about that hunger for things that are tangible — for connections with other people, for love. And the cookbook collector, to me, is a symbol of that, a person who's hungry, who's driven."
But the cookbook collector isn't just the person handling the books. Goodman's character Emily is just as career-driven as the collector is collection-driven, and in the end both Emily and the collector run the risk of losing sight of what really matters: virtue or wealth.
"These are the key questions, aren't they?" Goodman says. "Emily and Jess ... they're deciding how they're going to live. Part of deciding how you're going to live is deciding who you're going to be with, and part of [that] is deciding what to value in life. Where is value? Is value in your stock in your company, which could fluctuate wildly, where you are a paper millionaire? Do you find value in the natural world, as Jess does, with the redwood trees of northern California? Is what's really valuable and lasting a rare trove of cookbooks, or those companies whose names we can't remember anymore, who came and went? Or is value just to be found in other people, in the people that we love?"
Goodman says that while Jess and Emily do come to a sort of "conclusion" about these questions, the answer can be more elusive. She does offer, however, what she considers to be "a good part of the answer."
"In the end, people really are the most important thing," she says. "Flawed as we are, you know, we have each other."