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.

Allegra Goodman has rediscovered her sense of humor. Not that her new novellacks seriousness: With a plot propelled by the dotcom bubble and a principal character in the wrong place on 9/11, it tackles big, contemporary topics. But The Cookbook Collectortakes a welcome step back from the dark brilliance of its predecessor, Intuition.A grim tale of possible fraud at a cancer research lab, that novel displayed all of Goodman's searching moral intelligence and virtually none of the wit or amused savoring of human folly found in such previous works as Paradise Parkand The Family Markowitz. In her new novel, she works on a larger social canvas than ever before, armed with an awareness that to comprehend all the scheming and the sorrow, wit is indispensable.

Much of the comic tone is prompted by Jess Bach, a flaky philosophy grad student whose disorderly existence pointedly contrasts with the high-powered career of her older sister, Emily, CEO of a data-storage company that's about to go public in the fall of 1999. When she's not struggling with Kant, Jess spends her time leafleting for Save the Trees and sort-of working at Yorick's Used and Rare Books. There, her feckless ways madden yet entice proprietor George Friedman, a former Microsoft employee who's returned to Berkeley to spend his stock-dividend millions. Emily expects to get similarly rich from her shares in the Veritech Corp., but she has a hard time getting her sister to focus on the "Friends and Family" offering that would enable Jess to participate in the anticipated bonanza of Veritech's IPO. Go-with-the-flow Jess ends up borrowing the $1,800 she needs for the stock from—of all people—a Bialystoker rabbi introduced to her by an elderly neighbor in her shabby apartment building.

Goodman milks it for a joke, while making a cultural point. "I know from technology stocks," says Rabbi Helfgott, who bought Crossroads Systems at 19. "Veritech is the one that everybody wants. … You are investing in Veritech. And I am investing in you." This with-it rabbi is a world away from the conflicted followers of Rav Elijah Kirshner in Goodman's first novel, Kaaterskill Falls,who felt they must choose between religious traditions and secular lures. Goodman herself has been branching out, first to explore a more free-form quest for spiritual serenity in Paradise Park and then to dissect a different kind of self-contained community in Intuition. But the question of how to behave ethically in a world filled with temptations has remained central.

The temptations are greater and the ethical implications more troubling in The Cookbook Collector. When a partner of Emily's proposes a powerful new data-monitoring system, she envisions it as the basis of a password-authentication service. She's horrified to discover, six months later, that he's created the prototype for an electronic surveillance program designed to spy on users without their knowledge. Her fiance, Jonathan, is not so scrupulous. Across the continent in Cambridge, Mass., his data-security company, ISIS, is plagued by a glitchy principal product, Lockbox, and he can see the profit potential in the innovation Emily has unwisely told him about. He's annoyed at her for confiding such alluring proprietary information and relieved when she aborts the project at Veritech; "now he felt electronic fingerprinting was practically in the public domain."

Charismatic, self-deceiving Jonathan is one of the most textured character studies in a gallery of nuanced portraits. (My personal favorite: George's Indian-born competitor in rare books, who replies to George's complaints about "kids" being unable to distinguish between the virtual and the real, "This is First World deprivation. …[O]ther people can only aspire to that sort of spiritual degeneracy.") Jonathan insists that Emily is as competitive and eager to get rich as he is, and he's not wrong, but he loves her because he knows that in her own way she's as idealistic as her tree-hugging sister: "He looked to [Emily] to model what his soul might become, once he got exactly what he wanted." Goodman is a deft anatomist of bubble-fueled expectations, and the psychological—and spiritual—costs they exact.

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.

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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