During a crisis, the Bach sisters at the heart of Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector draw upon their childhood memories and vague promises, eventually finding their bond a bit undervalued. Setting the Bachs’ story against the turn-of-the-millennium dot-com bubble, Goodman’s sensitive, sweet sixth novel presents an endless series of such recalculations, in which finance mostly takes a back seat.
Estranged from their father and his new wife, twentysomething siblings Emily and Jessamine Bach rarely meet by accident as they pursue their separate passions in northern California. Emily is shepherding her Silicon Valley start-up Veritech to market, juggling her head programmer’s sensitive ego and her backers’ hopes. She has scant time to connect with her boyfriend, recently decamped to Boston to get his own dot-com off the ground. Directionless Jess holds down a part-time job at a Berkeley bookstore to be able to pay rent as she works towards her philosophy Ph.D., but she devotes most of her time to handing out fliers for an environmental non-profit whose charismatic founder catches her eye. As Emily steers her company toward going public, Jess helps her boss catalog the collection of a bookseller’s eccentric uncle who left love notes and sketches of a mysterious woman between the pages of his hundreds of volumes of cookbooks, with the proviso that they never be sold or removed from the house where he kept them.
The dot-com-boom setting gives The Cookbook Collector a pulse it would otherwise lack, even as it unfolds in a fashion more leisurely than suggested by the fast-paced opener, in which Emily’s offer of friends-and-family shares offends Jess, due to the assumption that she has savings to put into the company. The subplot of Emily’s long-distance relationship is a non-starter—while they’re vivid apart, the characters bleed into each other when together. But Jonathan’s friend Orion and his gradual estrangement from his medical-student girlfriend provide a melancholy yet needed counterpoint to Jess’ idealistic liaisons, including the tentative friendship springing up between her and her prickly boss—himself a Microsoft millionaire grown disenchanted with technology.
Toward the end of the novel end, Goodman exhibits too much of a compulsion to tuck in the narrative loose ends with a strand of melodrama in a darker shade than exists elsewhere in The Cookbook Collector, and the relationships between the Bach sisters and a group of religious Jews devoted to outreach aren’t given room to develop. Yet Goodman’s naturalistic dialogue tethers even the most hurried plot twists to the people whose value to each other hangs in the balance.