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The Cookbook Collector

Allegra Goodman’s digital-age romance mixes a traditional story line with some intellectual oomph.

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The Cookbook Collector
By Allegra Goodman
Random House Publishing Group
416 pp., $26

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You’ve probably heard this story before: Responsible older sister and flighty, passionate younger sister search for love and fulfillment.

In fact, National Book Award finalist Allegra Goodman has called her new novel, The Cookbook Collector, a “ ‘Sense and Sensibility’ for the digital age.”

Now, one could argue that comparing your own work to Jane Austen’s is like waving a red petticoat in front of a Janeite. But frankly, those estimable souls are probably still too green around the gills from “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” to object strongly.

Goodman is an intelligent observer who specializes in social comedies. Her settings have ranged from Orthodox Jewish communities (“Kaaterskill Falls”) to cancer research labs (“Intuition”). Here, she re-creates the heady days of the late 1990s, when bestsellers had names like “Dow 36,000” rather than “The New Frugality,” and it seemed as if every other 20-something was dropping out of college to have venture capital flung at them by double-handfuls.

Like the Dashwoods, Emily and Jessamine Bach have lost a parent – in this case, their mother. Their dad has a new family, and parental interaction is limited to tense visits at Thanksgiving. (“It’s the worst of both worlds,” said Emily. “Guilt without home cooking.”)

Sober, diligent Emily is about to become a dot-com millionaire, thanks to her California-based company, Veritech. Jess is a grad student in philosophy at Berkeley, who subsists on her part-time salary from an antiquarian bookshop. Yorick’s (from “Tristram Shandy,” not “Hamlet”) is owned by George, who comes from old West Coast money: He’s a Microsoft millionaire.

Jess is a wild-haired vegan with a penchant for lanky tree activists, while tidy Emily is engaged to golden boy Jonathan, who is poised to make his own fortune at ISIS, a start-up Internet security firm in Boston.

While Austen believed in rewarding “boring” virtues like duty, self-sacrifice, and propriety (after all, if the good guys can’t win in fiction, where can they?), Goodman’s sympathies here seem to lie on the side of sensibility.

“I guess I never understood why ‘grounded’ was such a positive thing,” a poet tells his son, the head of IT at ISIS.

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That may be because Goodman adds technology to the equation. One sister tries to find socially acceptable uses for spyware, while the other adores reading old copies of Edna St. Vincent Millay. (I’m going out on a limb here and guessing that Goodman does not own a Kindle.)

While Emily and Jonathan are storming the NASDAQ, Jess catalogs 16th-century cookbooks, whose recipes read less like instruction manuals than alchemy.

To make a tarte of strawberyes, wrote Margaret Parker in 1551, take and strayne theym with the yolkes of four egges, and a little whyte breade grated, then season it up with suger and swete butter and so bake it.

“The Cookbook Collector” ranges across a wide cast of characters, from IT specialists named after constellations to Orthodox rabbis who engage in day trading, sometimes abandoning Emily and Jess for chapters at a stretch.

There’s a rather unbelievable coincidence near the end of the novel that doesn’t add much except a few winces, and Goodman succumbs to the same need to rope in Sept. 11 that appears to afflict most modern novelists of any ambition. “They didn’t know it was September 11, but no one else did either.”

But Goodman also has brilliant analogies, like a Veritech employee reading “Winnie the Pooh” to her children and realizing his fall from the honey tree perfectly sums up her experience of the NASDAQ’s swoon.

And the recipes themselves are gorgeous, even for those of us who never plan to serve larded peacocks at a party. Despite some missteps near the end, “The Cookbook Collector” remains a smart, witty treat – ideal for those who like a little intellectual oomph in their summer romances.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.


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