“The Cookbook Collector”, by Allegra Goodman, 2010

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This story takes place during the dot-com bubble of the late 90’s through its collapse in the early 2000’s. Two sisters Jess and Emily are the central characters who are in two different worlds.  Emily is the CEO of a dot-com startup and Jess is a graduate student of philosophy at Berkeley (the author has a PhD in philosophy from Stanford) and works at a bookstore for George, the owner.  As the story progresses, Emily and the characters in her world are becoming multi-millionaires on paper as their stocks soar in what they are defining as a new economy; one in which companies don’t need profits to become highly valued. They are unable to redeem their shares after the initial public offerings for a period of months due to lock-in clauses.  During this time the mercurial rise of their stocks reverses and makes an equally swift fall into worthlessness or near worthlessness.  Meanwhile, Jess, in-between her studies and bookstore hours, joins the activists of “Save the Trees” to protect the redwood forests from logging.  Eventually she becomes involved with George in a project of appraising and cataloging  an extensive historical cookbook collection which George then purchases for his own.  The character of the deceased cookbook collector, Tom McClintock, emerges as they are going through the collection and notes of his are discovered in the pages of the books.  Jess and George become personally involved and the question of whether they really love each other hangs in the air until the end of the story. Without giving away too much of the ending, the two sisters and their worlds come together as wisdom wins out over folly and the characters discover their true identities.

My favorite part was the middle section in which the rising success of Emily, and her company, Veritech, and her boyfriend, Dave, and his company Isis (alluding to the Egyptian goddess) inflates their egos and those in their companies.  The resulting hubris brings out previously unrevealed character weaknesses and sweet dreams of how to spend their soon-to-be-had riches.  After their fall some are destroyed and others return chastened and a little wiser to more humble lives.  Another section I enjoyed was that in which Jess and George are going through the cookbook collection. This is a counterpart to the stock boom and bust, but instead of collapsing in value like the stock, the collection’s value expands as it is explored and new dimensions of its significance unfold.  George doubles his initial offer to the heir and owner of the cookbooks, Sandra, as the appraised value of the collection is revised upward and the money ends up going to a good cause.  Accumulating clues from the cookbook collector’s notes give Jess and George further insight into who he was and who they are to each other.  A part of the book which did not resonate for me was the last section in which religion triumphs over atheism, and the notion of “everything happens for a reason”  is heralded as a guiding principle.  Additionally, the ending seemed to resolve everything swiftly and neatly in a “too good to be true” way which seemed more like a fairytale ending than one which might have a more plausible relationship to the real world.  That being said, I still liked the book on the whole.

Bill Sargeant

 

“An Attar of Roses” by Jane Eschrich, 2014

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This novel explores the hazards for the protagonist/narrator, Geneva, in allowing romantic longings towards an unavailable person to carry her away from her better judgement.   This all-too-common trap for human beings, and frequent theme in literature, comes to life here in yet another rendering with an uncommon twist at the end. The particulars in this story involve Geneva Aberdeen, a music history graduate, who works in an Indian catering kitchen and dates Mark Bergstrom, an intellectual nursery owner in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.  Although compatible in many ways, their lukewarm romance can’t seem to develop sufficient emotional depth for marriage.  A re-emergence of a youthful crush from college, Dr. Nikolaus Gaetjens, causes Geneva’s previous obsessive passion for him to awaken.  One major obstacle is that Nikolaus is married and has a child.  Additionally, his feelings for Geneva are expressed with such vagueness and subtlety that she can’t be sure how much of what she infers is really just her wishful thinking.  A parallel thread in the story is the examination of the love theme in the works of the Russian novelist,  Ivan Turgenev.  A literary club, “Fortnight”, led by Mark and attended by Geneva, holds a series of lectures given by Mark which focus on Turgenev and the romantic complications of his characters which coincidently mirror that of Geneva, Mark, and Nikolaus.  As Mark and Geneva’s relationship stalls out, a trip to Montreal for a music history conference brings Geneva and Nikolaus together in a climax and resolution of the main theme.

Unlike many modern novels rife with “F-bombs” and other earthly colloquialisms, Ms. Eschrich has chosen a quaint and formal narrative tone of writing that is more akin to the vocabulary and phrasing of Jane Austen, etc.   I enjoyed the delicate beauty of this elevated and stylized language and the nuances it conveys.  It also casts an appropriately introspective mood and suggests to me a psychological dislocation of the three main characters away from modern American popular culture and into the historical periods they have spent their lives studying and teaching.  The following example is representative of the language employed:

“The discovery that I had not yet cast aside the unformed ardor of my youth was greeted with sadness as well as dismay, and I was astounded to perceive that the mere image of Nikolaus Gaetjens, no doubt ennobled in my mind over the years, was enough to elicit an emotional response not at all sensible.”

Much of the story takes place in the Indian food establishment where Geneva works as a prep cook, with the lives of the owners, the Joshi family, providing a contrast in values and lifestyle.  Where Geneva has become preoccupied with romantic love and attaining an all but unattainable partner, the Joshi’s have come together through an arranged marriage with little or no romance and focus instead on running a business and raising children.  Geneva occupies a psychological space of times and cultures outside her own late 20th century American milieu whereas the Joshi’s are firmly ensconced in their own culture and remain within its enclave, albeit as immigrants to America.  The Joshi’s are practical and Geneva is an idealist.  Between the two worlds is Dorothy, an Indian immigrant and Geneva’s best friend. Through Dorothy, the first allusion to the title’s metaphor “attar of roses” appears as a gift from her to Mrs. Joshi.  At the end of the story the metaphor returns as a catalyst for Geneva’s epiphany.

Throughout the book an impressive amount of research is apparent ranging in subject matter from Turgenev, Indian cuisine and culture, botany, Renaissance music, and the colonial Potomac region.  Some of my most educational reading is through fiction and this book serves amply with knowledge to that ends.

In full disclosure, the author is a personal friend of mine and although I have attempted to present her book on its own merits, my reading experience was influenced by knowing her and seeing some of the influences from her personal life filter into the story.  I am also well acquainted with the D.C. metro area, having spent several years there, so both means of familiarity have enhanced my reading of “An Attar of Roses”.

Bill Sargeant