Category Archives: “The Cookbook Collector”

“The Cookbook Collector”, by Allegra Goodman, 2010

DCF 1.0

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