I read this novel some time ago, and posted a short review on a Goodreads. I had mixed feelings about this book, so here is an expanded review. The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman was billed as “a delicious novel about appetite, temptation, and fulfillment” yet I did not find it so. Isn’t it funny how our expectations will color our enjoyment of a book? Many people found the book likeable in its portrayal of a time frame. I was looking for something else, based on the cover synopsis, so it was disappointing to me.
The author says the book is about hunger for life, love, security, but the characters were superficial at best. Certainly the hunger part of the story was clear with a race between technology companies to roll out their products first, but this didn’t translate to the authors goal to portray “dreaming instead of living”. There were too many side characters and subplots that were not fleshed out. The only really enjoyable part of the story was about the cookbook collection, which amazingly was not that large a part to the overall story.
So where is the cookbook collector? This part of the story is introduced halfway through the book with a collection that comes up for sale to George (an antique book dealer) after the collector’s death. He goes to see the collection which is crammed into every available space in a kitchen, all the cabinets and even the oven are full of books. George asks Jess (his assistant) to help him catalog the collection. That part of the book was interesting, with some nice descriptions of actual antique cookbooks and cookbook lore. The story slows for a while, as the author describes the notes left on the books by the original collector. Here the novel comes close to making a statement about savoring life, not just reading about it, in a scene with Jess and a peach. I suppose that is the heart of the novel, as there are peaches on the cover art. However, I much would have preferred a full story about the collector, his unrequited love, the search for and acquisition of the antique books, and his thoughts and feelings set down in the notes paper clipped to the pages of the books.
So, did I miss the point of the book? I don’t think so. I think that the author became so wrapped up in the technology part of the story that the title story was left behind. The events of the time play a role as well, and that becomes a bit of a sidetrack with the technology boom, and the dot-com bubble burst, along with 9-11. I kept thinking to myself, so when are we going to get to the cookbook collector? It was so far into the book that I began to think that there wasn’t going to be one and the title was a metaphor. When the collection finally appears, George does do some dreaming about cooking for Jess, but it is not the entire focus of the story, and shortly after we are back to current events.
The author couldn’t seem to decide which story she wanted to tell. There is the technology story with meteoric rises and crashes, the antique book seller described as older yet he is only 36 when the novel begins, the dynamic between two sisters who are opposites in personality and life goals, then with a whole new mystery thrown in at the end as they search for the Jewish roots they never knew they had. It has been said that the author was a modern-day Jane Austin, but the book only has a superficial resemblance to Sense and Sensibility. There are two sisters, and one has a complicated relationship with two men, but that’s about it.
So, would I recommend this book? Yes and no. I know a lot of people just loved it, which is why I picked it up in the first place. It didn’t meet my expectations, but you might enjoy it. Just go into it knowing that it isn’t about a cookbook collector.
Have you read this book? What did you think?