You know those “I’d rather be ___” bumper stickers, like I’d rather be fishing, or I’d rather be driving a golf ball? Mine would say, “I’d rather be reading a 19th century work.”
This is not to say that I wish I’d lived then or that I ever plan to write historical fiction (actually, I agree with Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh that I do distrust an author who cannot see the nobleness in his own time and therefore must turn to other eras for material). But insofar as reading goes, I have to make myself take a break from the 19th century to keep abreast of contemporary literature. For me, reading contemporary lit. is like having lunch with a friendly acquaintance but an acquaintance with whom I know I will never quite share the perfect naturalness of a best friend.
Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector proved one such reading experience.
For those of you who read for enjoyment more than for art’s sake, The Cookbook Collector will likely please. It tells the story of two sisters—one a Californian, free-spirited tree hugger, the other a successful, uptight businesswoman—both of whom are in their twenties and just starting to make their way in the world. Goodman consciously parallels Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, but I choose not to linger here. I don’t like books that are spin-offs of other books, and I think it is a moral crime—yes, I really mean moral—to retell a book from another character’s point of view (Goodman comes nowhere near doing this). Besides, Goodman does enough here with allusions to other works and with her portrayal of a contemporary climate that she doesn’t need the Austen crutch.
(Mind you, allusions don’t bother me; in fact, they please me. It’s okay to apply old ideas in new settings; it’s not okay to take old characters and book-specific situations and simply recast them in modern day--again, not what Goodman did, just a tangent here.)
The Cookbook Collector is certainly a fun read; it’s a book that will make you keep reading when you should really have put dinner in the oven a half hour ago. The love story between Jess, the tree hugger, and George, her older, connoisseur-of-old-things boss, is irresistible. In a very memorable and allusion-fraught move of courtship, George leaves an under-ripe peach that he knows will tempt Jess. She watches it slowly ripen and achieve perfection over the course of several days, at which point she can’t resist any longer. It’s a delicious scene for both Jess and the reader.
I also genuinely admire how Goodman makes types likable. Jess—the Californian free spirit type—would seem like somebody this homespun Midwestern reader wouldn’t much jive with in real life, except that Goodman lays bare Jess’s earnest feelings and good intentions so that I can no more resist caring about her story than the titular cookbook collector can resist confessing her secret to Jess.
Truly, there are things to admire in this book, but I have to warn you—and here comes a very general plot spoiler—Goodman’s use of September 11 as a plot twist went a little too far for me. I won’t give too many details in case any of you decide to read, but as with Forrest Gump, the more pivotal 20th century events he directly touches, the less believable and more fable-like his story becomes.
But because I really do enjoy Goodman’s writing, let me end on a more positive note. The Cookbook Collector is ultimately a fun, character-driven read. But what she did in her short story, “La Vita Nouva,” which appeared in The New Yorker and is still available here, is truly artful. The first time I read it, I didn’t really connect with the main character throughout the first part where she tries to recover from a jilting by taking up odd hobbies like painting Russian dolls. However, if you read to the last two lines of the story, you’ll see that they function almost like the final couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet. In a Shakespearean sonnet, the ending couplet (last two lines of the poem) contains a sudden turn in thought that throws an entirely new light on the twelve lines that preceded it. Here, too, the last two lines of the story suddenly open an emotionally-charged, thematic reflection on how heartbreakingly helpless we are to keep loved ones by our side—a universal theme that resonates from young children left in daycare to aged spouses facing death. Brava, Ms. Goodman!