As I mentioned in those posts, The Cookbook Collector is an overstuffed novel of a type that could be called a “social novel” (though see below), or, about equally well, a “women’s novel.” The central plot strands revolve around two sisters, now living in Berkeley and Silicon Valley, but originally from Massachusetts. Jessamine, or Jess, is a graduate student in philosophy, struggling to keep on top of her school work, her relationships, and her job at an antiquarian bookshop. Emily, her older sister, is the CEO of a software startup. Both women are marked by the death of their mother, so early that Jess has hardly any memories of her.
Emily’s fiancé is also a software executive, at a company in Cambridge, founded by friends of his from graduate school at MIT, on the basis of a project they began there. They’re tenuously carrying on a long-distance relationship. Jess has recently begun dating a celebrity in the world of environmentalism, and trying to fit into his way of life. Her boss, George, doesn’t approve of him—or of her, much of the time, though he finds her paradoxically charming. George was once a sort of hippie, then a graduate student and ultimately Ph.D. in physics, then a Microsoft employee and ultimately millionaire, and now an independently wealthy bachelor with eighteenth-century tastes. (The reader might be reminded of Douglas Coupland’s novel, Microserfs, in which a similar life arc is taken by much younger characters.) In politics, he tends libertarian. In culture, he prefers the tried and true, especially the eighteenth century. In lifestyle, he prefers the expensive.
The plot’s set in motion when Jess needs a few thousand dollars to invest in the “sure thing” represented by the Friends and Family program for the impending public stock offering of her sister’s company. She ends up going to her neighbor’s rabbi for a loan. The Bialystokers are an outside-looking group apparently modeled on the Lubavitch. Eventually, unable to pay the money back, she’ll feel compelled to keep visiting the Bialystokers, if only out of politeness. At about the same time, George is approached by a woman with a large collection of antique books on cookery. He’s initially wary, but eventually is drawn in.
If you’ve guessed the ending already, you’re probably right. But the journey there is enjoyable and the included side trips are worth the fare.
The software-startup strands of the plot are forward-looking. George, on the other hand—computer guy that he is—is entirely backward looking. He has renovated his house, which is an architecturally significant example of the Arts and Crafts style, so that everything but the kitchen is appropriate to the time at which it was built. He collects old books and counts himself a connoisseur of the best things of the past. He’s a recognizable type: someone who’s made a lot of money in technology and uses it to finance a lifestyle that’s as close as possible as he could come to a fairly traditional one (a privileged version of a traditional lifestyle, that is).
(There are MINOR SPOILERS below this point.)
The writing style is elegant, but fairly dry (a welcome change from the British novels I’ve been reading, which tend toward the extreme of the strictures set out by writing-instruction books, heavy on concrete images and shy of the more leisurely kinds of prose). Thus, in so far as there’s a love story embedded in this novel, there end up being two ways of reading that love story. In other words, some readers will feel that the characters who get together are pretty amazing, that they’re essentially made for each other, and that it’s totally understandable why they fell; but others may feel that they’re acting on a whim or another irrational emotion, and that things will never work out. In this way, The Cookbook Collector is like the Jane Austen novels that George loves. Can a modern reader really believe that Mr. Darcy (in Pride and Prejudice) or Mr. Knightley (in Emma) is such a good catch? Are we simply used to thinking of a marriage as the happy ending to this kind of story, or can we show that Darcy and Knightley are, as depicted by their author, really good? (There’s an interesting connection here to Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, which begins with Madeleine’s student preoccupation with this traditional novel form, which she’s been taught is nowadays impossible.)
The novel builds to the economic problems that began, in high-tech industries, in 2000. Some characters get out of that crisis okay, some more than okay. Some end up in something close to dire straits. Whether or not this was the novelist’s intention, it’s difficult not to see the causes of these different ultimate fates in their differing individual choices. The Cookbook Collector is not a “social” novel in the sense of telling us about society. Goodman doesn’t detail elements of the software industry that link it up with the wider society (with minor exceptions like the East Coast MIT-venture capital link), or the elements in that wider society that impact on the people who work in the industry (again with exceptions like global terrorism and yuppiedom). The novelist is concerned, rather, with the human factors—virtues and vices, greed, pride, lust—that affect their ability to cope, to work together, and generally to live their lives, without unbearable angst.
I would have liked to see the business elements of the novel placed in some kind of context, though. We start the book in medias res, with two of the major characters already highly placed in different software startups on different coasts, in 1999. We end it in 2002, when the principals’ dreams of outrageous fortunes have become a little less rosy. What we don’t see is the recession. Noticing that the rest of the economy is missing brings to the foreground the fact that the rest of the high-tech industry is missing too. The novel focuses on what’s interesting or “sexy.” That means the rich and fabulous, on the one hand, and what’s in the news, on the other. Goodman seems to want to make large statements about what it’s like to work in that economy, however, and the missing pieces make for a misleading whole.
The overall effect is to connect the characters’ reversals of fortune to their personal failings alone. A focus on individuals and their personal growth into (or out of) the environment that surrounds them is appropriate to the traditional social novel. On the other hand, the attempt to convey a larger message, which is also present here, is undercut. And there were plenty of people who were also in dire straits by 2002, merely because they had associated themselves with companies that later failed, and not through any vices of their own. Those people are missing, and to the extent one assumes that they’re present implicitly, the implications are more than a little insulting to them.
Nor does Goodman manage to avoid—entirely—the literary cliché by means of which science and engineering types (or those who inadvisedly associate themselves with such) are rescued from the commercial world, either through art or through their recognition of the horror that world seems to them to entail.
At first, Goodman’s novel seemed to make a refreshing change from books like Diane Johnson’s L’Affaire or Ellen Ullman’s The Bug (the latter by a former programmer herself, the former by a literature professor). Both of those are framed as events that have already happened, to a protagonist who has already abandoned the field for less specialized pursuits. Johnson sets her character’s newly found (American) wealth against the context of the mostly European, mostly leisure-based society in which she’s beginning to move. In Ullman’s novel, the pressures of the commercial-industrial world compel the narrator’s break with that world, to preserve her own sanity. The Cookbook Collector, a little more novelistically, externalizes that kind of conflict by displacing it from within the protagonists’ psyches to inter-sibling conflict within a family. Yet by the end of the novel, more than one of the characters (pretty much all the sympathetic ones) has similarly left in disgust.
I like this novel and would recommend it without reservation. I think the questions Gabriel Brownstein raised about why The Cookbook Collector was not generally discussed as on a level with Freedom and The Marriage Plot are valid. That it left me wishing for more is not necessarily a bad thing.