No one reads a book in a vacuum. Our expectations of a story color our experience of it, just as with everything else in our lives.
I mention this because, with a title like The Cookbook Collector, I naively thought that Allegra Goodman’s book was going to be about a cookbook collector. This appealed to me as a cook and as someone with a deep appreciation for hedonistic food fiction.
Yes, there existed in the story a person who collected cookbooks – two, technically speaking. One was no longer living, the other was the person who acquired the deceased’s collection. This was not, however, what the story was about. It wasn’t a bad story, it just wasn’t what I wanted it to be. I enjoyed it anyway, but I felt a bit misled by the title.
I was able to sidestep my disappointment enough to see that The Cookbook Collector is a good book in its own right. As for what it is about, well, it has a rather eclectic plot. It is somewhat of an ensemble novel, with multiple prevalent characters who have a wide range of interests and issues. Some are looking for love, some have it, some are pursuing money, others are seeking a better existence through faith.
Some (but far from all) of the various subplots include: two separate internet-related startup corporations; stock market drama; romance between the founders of the two companies; a young student of philosophy who gets entangled with young men on the front lines of the environmental movement; a rare books store owner with hidden feelings for his employee; two sisters who seek to learn more about estranged family members on their late mother’s side; the 9/11 terrorist attacks; a Hasidic Jewish family, representing a somewhat evangelical organization, who become involved in certain characters’ lives in a way that requires some hand-waving.
It might be difficult to pinpoint who the real protagonists are, and for a while I was not sure where the book was going. I doubted that the author could pull all these people and events into a cohesive story, because it seemed too far-reaching and thinly spread.
I was mistaken about both of my concerns, as it turns out. Once the titular cookbooks come into play, there is plenty of food description to go around, with a little sexiness thrown in for good measure. The author has brought some beautiful and artistic pieces of prose into being. Her rhetoric leans toward the pragmatic (yet pleasant) side, but there are some sensual surprises scattered throughout. While never first-person, the perspective shifts slightly from character to character. A change in style informs the reader whose story is the focus at that point, and these epicurean passages come from a source that is unexpected – which makes them all the better.
The story lines all do eventually run together, though as I mentioned, some of these junctions call for a little suspension of disbelief. Ms. Goodman makes it work, but I would guess it wasn’t easy. Her transitions aren’t the smoothest I’ve read, but they suffice.
I liked the characters of The Cookbook Collector well enough, but I did not love them or need to know how their lives turned out. I could not understand or respect some of their choices. It wasn’t that they were despicable people, or even badly-written; I just didn’t relate to them.
Many other readers would probably enjoy this book more than I did. It simply did not run to my tastes, which is bound to happen once in a while, and does not reflect poorly on the author or her style. Sometimes it’s all about what you bring to the table.