Allegra Goodman rediscovers humor in The Cookbook Collector. 

Reading between the lines.
July 18 2010 9:28 AM

Not So Grand Illusions

Allegra Goodman is the Jane Austen of the dotcom era.

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The humor, not surprisingly, is often dark. In the portions of the story dealing with Veritech and ISIS, Goodman is sardonic as she astutely tracks their employees' maneuvers for status and influence. Kaaterskill Fallsand Intuition demonstrated her skill in depicting the intricate blend of personal and institutional negotiation that goes on within a group, but in those novels people who violated the community's rules were punished, and the author offered them no satisfactory alternatives. In The Cookbook Collector, she leavens an unsparing chronicle of financial and moral delusions with the saga of Jess and George, a mismatched pair who in the time-honored way of romance are clearly meant for each other.

He's 39, rich, cynical about people and technology. "In the eye of the Internet storm, George sought the treasures of the predigital age. … [H]e collected first editions of dystopian satires." She's 23, "well read, opinionated, unconcerned with profit." She donates her Veritech stock to Save the Trees; he snipes at the do-gooding organization and her naiveté. Yet it's empathetic Jess who persuades the nervous inheritor of a rare cookbook collection to sell it to George, who is too self-absorbed to cajole. Goodman, who roams skillfully among multiple points of view here (as in all her work), charts their stop-and-start progress toward love with a droll touch. But their story provides more than comic relief.

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Jess emerges as the sister who grasps life as it is—and we should have known it from the first chapter. There she cheerfully confesses that at 12 she went ahead and read the dozens of letters their mother wrote for each of them while dying of breast cancer, intending the missives to be opened individually on successive birthdays. Punctilious Emily is shocked, and not just by her sister's behavior. In business, "she imagined people were rational and courteous, as she was, and when they proved otherwise, she assumed she could influence them to become that way." Jonathan's sudden death devastates her, because "the man she'd hoped he would become was lost, and she was left with … the things he'd actually done."

Goodman depicts the aftermath of 9/11 with refreshing astringency, noting of President Bush's exhortations to the shell-shocked public to go out and shop, "Alas, buying did not appeal." She is equally unsentimental, though gentler, in showing that Emily emerges from a life-changing crisis … not very much changed. We see Emily last at Jess' wedding, enthusiastically describing her new social-networking venture: "[I]t seemed to her as it had once before, that she was living on the cusp of a new era." She's beenchastened by a bruising reality check, but her ideals are intact. Goodman admires this quality, I think. She appreciates her characters' tenacity and resilience in maintaining their vision of the world—even when, as with Jonathan, there are significant moral blind spots in that vision. Neither the choices we make nor the values we live by are perfect, she recognizes. Goodman invites us to embrace imperfection as she closes with her newlywed lovers entwined in a hammock: "George and Jess floated together, although nothing lasted. They held each other, although nothing stayed."

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