Cookbook Collector (Goodman)

The Cookbook Collector 
Allegra Goodman, 2010
Random House
394 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385340854

Heralded as “a modern day Jane Austen” by USA Today, National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author Allegra Goodman has compelled and delighted hundreds of thousands of readers. Now, in her most ambitious work yet, Goodman weaves together the worlds of Silicon Valley and rare book collecting in a delicious novel about appetite, temptation, and fulfillment.

Emily and Jessamine Bach are opposites in every way: Twenty-eight-year-old Emily is the CEO of Veritech, twenty-three-year-old Jess is an environmental activist and graduate student in philosophy. Pragmatic Emily is making a fortune in Silicon Valley, romantic Jess works in an antiquarian bookstore. Emily is rational and driven, while Jess is dreamy and whimsical. Emily’s boyfriend, Jonathan, is fantastically successful. Jess’s boyfriends, not so much—as her employer George points out in what he hopes is a completely disinterested way.

Bicoastal, surprising, rich in ideas and characters, The Cookbook Collector is a novel about getting and spending, and about the substitutions we make when we can’t find what we’re looking for: reading cookbooks instead of cooking, speculating instead of creating, collecting instead of living. But above all it is about holding on to what is real in a virtual world: love that stays. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Where—New York City, New York, USA
Raised—in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA
Education—A.B., Harvard University; Ph.D., Stanford
Currently—lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Goodman was raised a Conservative Jew in Honolulu, Hawaii. She graduated from Punahou School in 1985. Her mother, the late Madeline Goodman, was a genetics and women's studies professor then assistant vice president at the University of Hawaii at Manoa for many years before moving on to Vanderbilt University in the 1990s. Her father, Lenn E. Goodman, is a professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt.

Goodman attended Harvard University, where she earned an A.B. degree and met her husband, David Karger. Both were regulars at Harvard Hillel, and prayed in Harvard Hillel Orthodox Minyan. They then went on to do graduate work at Stanford University, where Goodman earned a Ph.D. degree in English literature.

Goodman's younger sister, Paula Fraenkel, is an oncologist. Fraenkel's experience in research labs is one of the inspiratons for Goodman's 2006 novel Intuition.

Goodman and Karger live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Karger is a researcher in computer science at MIT. They have four children, three boys and a girl.

Goodman wrote and illustrated her first novel at the age of seven, which was an instant hit in the Goodman family. She is, however, more widely known for her adult writings, which include The Family Markowitz (1996); Kaaterskill Falls (1998); Paradise Park (2001); Intuition (2006); The Other Side of the Island (2008); The Cookbook Collector (2010). She as also written a short story collection, Total Immersion (1989) and other assorted short stories. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews 
Allegra Goodman's new novel has so many appealing ingredients. Where, then, to start the list? Perhaps, as with food labels, it would be best to begin with the biggest: an irresistible story. Then add four strong characters: two sisters, and the two men who orbit them. Then there's the narrative voice: sweet but not cloyingly so, nourishing but not heavy, serving up zesty nuggets of truth. And the spicing is piquant but not too assertive…If you're hankering for a feast of love, let yourself fall under the spell of Allegra Goodman's abundantly delicious tale. You won't leave hungry.
Dominique Browning - New York Times

Fans of Goodman's lovely, nuanced novels have a treat in store with this tale of two sisters.
Entertainment Weekley

(Starred review.) If any contemporary author deserves to wear the mantel of Jane Austen, it's Goodman, whose subtle, astute social comedies perfectly capture the quirks of human nature. This dazzling novel is Austen updated for the dot-com era, played out between 1999 and 2001 among a group of brilliant risk takers and truth seekers. Still in her 20s, Emily Bach is the CEO of Veritech, a Web-based data-storage startup in trendy Berkeley. Her boyfriend, charismatic Jonathan Tilghman, is in a race to catch up at his data-security company, ISIS, in Cambridge, Mass. Emily is low-key, pragmatic, kind, serene—the polar opposite of her beloved younger sister, Jess, a crazed postgrad who works at an antiquarian bookstore owned by a retired Microsoft millionaire. When Emily confides her company's new secret project to Jonathan as a proof of her love, the stage is set for issues of loyalty and trust, greed, and the allure of power. What is actually valuable, Goodman's characters ponder: a company's stock, a person's promise, a forest of redwoods, a collection of rare cookbooks? Goodman creates a bubble of suspense as both Veritech and ISIS issue IPOs, career paths collide, social values clash, ironies multiply, and misjudgments threaten to destroy romantic desire. Enjoyable and satisfying, this is Goodman's (Intuition) most robust, fully realized and trenchantly meaningful work yet.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) Crisp, accomplished Emily Markowitz is CEO of a data-storage startup in late 1990s California. Her sister, Jessica, is a messy, passionate graduate student in philosophy who's involved with the charismatic leader of Tree Savers and works in a rare-books store owned by the older, slightly grumpy George. George got rich off of Microsoft and now follows his first love, and he's impressed when Jess manages something brilliant with a woman who wants but doesn't want to part with an astonishing cookbook collection. Frantically different, the sisters are still bound by memories of the mother they lost as children; Emily strains to persuade Jess to invest in her startup even as Jess strains to see what Emily sees in her fiancé, go-getter Jonathan, who has his own startup back East. Meanwhile, their father, who appreciates techie overachiever Emily more than wise Jess, is strangely resistant to the Bialystokers moving in next door. Alas, 9/11 brings not just family tragedy but the revelation of some uncomfortable truths and a realignment of relationships. Verdict: Do these folks sound like types? They absolutely are not. Goodman (Kaaterskill Falls) is remarkably successful in creating rich, engaging characters and a complex story of love and identity that reads like life itself. Highly recommended. —Barbara Hoffert
Library Journal

Goodman asks the big questions about what money can—and cannot—buy, and how we should live our lives. To those questions, of course, she provides no easy answers.
Bookmarks Magazine

(Starred review.) From mysticism to algorithms, IPOs, and endangered trees and souls, Goodman spins a glimmering tale, spiked with hilarious banter, of ardent individualists, imperiled love, and incandescent interpretations of the mutability and timelessness of the human condition. —Donna Seaman

Discussion Questions 
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Cookbook Collector:

1. Start with the obvious: the two sisters, Emily and Jess Bach. How are they different? Do they share any traits in common? How would you describe their relationship to one another? Do you identify or sympathsize with one over the other?

2. What do you think about George Friedman, a man who tells "his life history with objects"? What does this regard for beautiful objects—and his need to collect them—suggest about his priorities in life?

3. What about the other love interests—especially Jonathan and Leon? Describe them, their obvious differences, and their respective relationships with Emily and Jess?

4. Much has been made, by reviewers and the author herself, of this novel's likeness to Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Have you read S & S? If so, what similarities do you see? Have you also read The Three Weissmanns of Westport (2010), another sendup of Sense and Sensibility? If so how does Cookbook compare with Weissmanns?

5. On her website, author Allegra Goodman makes this comment about her inspiration for the novel:

I don't cook, but I love to read cookbooks. I know I'm not alone in this, and I began to think about this phenomenon of reading instead of cooking, and dreaming instead of living. I thought—what would it be like to write a novel about hunger? Hunger to taste, to build, to collect, to profit, to love.

How do the ideas expressed here—dreaming rather than living and fulfilling the hunger for life—get played out in the novel?

6. Dismissing the benefit of hindsight, what do you think of Emily's offer to Jess to purchase Veritech's IPO stock at a reduced rate?

7. Emily, again: why does she confide Veritech's secret project to Jonathan? What consequences does sharing that secret have on their relationship? What does it suggest about trust and doubt between two people?

8. How does Jess go about attaining the remarkable cookbook collection? What makes the books so desirable? What is their symbolic significance to the theme (and title)?

9. The novel uses shifting narrators. Why might the author have used such a structure? Do you enjoy the different perspectives...or would you have prefered a single narrative voice?

10. Some readers felt Goodman tries to weave too many subjects into the plotline—IPO's and dot-coms, 9/11, Jewish mysticism, environmentalism, cookbooks, parent-child relationships, materialism, doubt, secrets.... Do you feel the author was successful in pulling all the plot strands together? Or do you agree that too much is, well...too much?

11. How does Goodman's use of co-incidence sit with you? Are the coincidences too blatant, too impossible (i.e., wouldn't the sisters know their mother's maiden name)...or do they work?

12. Do Emily and Jess become more similar by the end of the book—do their differences begin to fade? What does each character learn through the course of the novel? How do they change or grow?

13. Are you satisfied with how the book ends?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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