By Marsha Fottler
Despite the lush and beguiling detail of an old-master still-life painting of peaches and blackberries on the cover of this novel, The Cookbook Collector is not really at the heart of things about cooking; you’ll find no usable recipes therein. Cuisine is significant but only tangentially. The character who represents the title is a serious bachelor home cook who begins to collect culinary publications because he owns a bookstore and covets first editions for his own private library. He’s also in love with one of the main characters.
In food terms, however, this book is a complex relationship stew that bubbles and simmers finally delivering an experience that satisfies the senses. The story tracks along parallel lines in Boston and Berkeley, where the two under-30 single Bach sisters live. They are the main ingredients.
Jess is a romantic on no particular career path who works part time in a bookstore and thinks she is love with an environmental activist named Leon who doesn’t treat her well. Emily is an ambitious CEO of a Silicon Valley tech company on the brink of major success. The sisters’ friends, love interests and family members add to the rich and spicy broth in this character-driven book that can also be put into the category of the 9/11 novel since that tragedy becomes a defining moment for one of the characters.
The story is basically about the tension between pursuing what you think you want and finally knowing what you actually need. Skilled author Allegra Goodman takes her time letting these young women find their way. Jess (who is such a vegan that she won’t eat harvested honey from “indentured bees”) is always hungry but it’s obvious she has a longing that can’t be sated with calories. Emily takes food and her romantic future for granted until everything changes forever in a matter of minutes.
Along the way to self realization for the sisters (and others who orbit them) there is some lengthy talk of food as nurturing or seductive elements – Alice B. Toklas Haschich Fudge, Cinnebons to serve at at Emily’s I.P.O. brunch, a lovely poetic Tudor description of a strawberry tart. And there is this lusty daydream of George, the shy cookbook collector:
“If he could have Jess, he would feed her…he longed to nourish her with clementines, and pears in season, fresh whole-wheat bread and butter, wild strawberries, comte cheese, fresh figs and oily Marcona almonds, tender yellow beets. He would sear red meat, if she would let him, and grill spring lamb. Cut the thorns off artichokes and dip the leaves in fresh aioli, poach her fish – thick Dover sole in wine and shallots – julienne potatoes and roast a whole chicken with lemon slices under the skin. He would serve a salad of heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella and just-picked basil. Serve her and watch her savor dinner, pour for her, and watch her drink. That would be enough for him. To find her plums in season and perfect nectarines, velvet apricots, dark and succulent duck. To bring her all these things and watch her eat.”
Who could resist such a lover?
(The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Coodman. Dial Press, New York. $26.)