Looking at the pretty still life on the cover of Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector, you’d never guess that the story focuses on Silicon Valley dotcom companies in a pre-9/11 era when overnight fortunes were still being made. Against this backdrop, we meet two sisters: Emily, the responsible eldest sister who is about to launch tech company Veritech, and Jess, the free spirited philosophy student who works part time at a bookstore (when not out trying to save the trees). Their mother died when they were young, and Emily has always assumed the role of caretaker to Jess, giving unwanted opinions on everything from clothes to boyfriends. While Emily is a driven businesswoman dating an equally driven CEO of tech company ISIS, Jess is content to work at the bookstore, catalog a collection of rare cookbooks, and date her sketchy boyfriends. As the story moves from 1999 to 2002, we see how Emily, Jess, and their friends and family, as well as rival companies Veritech and ISIS, were affected by the events of that time.
The Cookbook Collector has a lot going for it—wonderful prose, an interesting time period and subject matter, a few similarities to Sense and Sensibility—yet I didn’t find the book all that appealing. The characters and the story just felt flat to me. Jess, who is supposed to be this free spirited hippie chick, seemed to have no personality when she should have been jumping off the pages. I also wished there was more 90s nostalgia, beyond what was happening in the tech world, like maybe some pop culture references (I’m just saying—maybe having Jess man the Save the Trees booth at Lilith Fair would have been the shot of adrenalin this book needed). Even Y2K barely even gets mentioned, which seemed incredibly strange for a book about technology in 1999.
Even though I didn’t love The Cookbook Collector, I was impressed with Allegra Goodman’s writing and I would definitely read another of her books. I think this one just wasn’t a good fit for me.
Instead of multiple quotes, I’m going to post the beautiful first paragraph of The Cookbook Collector:
Rain at last. Much-needed rain, the weathermen called it. Rain drummed the little houses skyrocketing in value in Cupertino and Sunnyvale. Much-needed rain darkened the red tile roofs of Stanford, and puddled Palo Alto’s leafy streets. On the coast, the waves were molten silver, rising and melting in the September storm. Bridges levitated, and San Francisco floated like a hidden fortress in the mist. Rain flattened the impatiens edging corporate lawns, and Silicon Valley shimmered. The world was bountiful, the markets buoyant. Reflecting pools brimmed to overflowing, and already the tawny hills looked greener. Like money, the rain came in a rush, enveloping the Bay, delighting forecasters, exceeding expectations, charging the air.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Stars | Publisher: The Dial Press | Pages: 416 | Source: Purchased | Buy on Amazon