Book review - The Cookbook Collector

The latest novel from acclaimed American writer Allegra Goodman is about love, sisterly relations, the dotcom crash, environmental activists, professional rivalry, 9/11 and, yes, an enigmatic cookbook collector. Goodman has adroitly interwoven these diverse themes to create a literary page-turner.

Emily and Jess appear to have been cast in a different mould: 28-eight-year-old Emily has made a fortune as CFO of a successful internet start-up. Her younger sister, 23-year-old Jess, is a dreamy graduate student in philosophy who works in an antiquarian bookstore with George, a handsome, beguiling, cynical millionaire, 16 years her senior. Love blossoms when he purchases a rare collection of cookery books and asks Jess to help him catalogue them.

Nature versus nurture, commercial interests versus the free exchange of ideas, reality versus the virtual world, collecting instead of creating, and the clash between a corporate culture and romantic idealism: all come under Goodman's microscope. The sisters lost their mother at an early age and one of the novel's most touching moments is when they discuss the letters that she wrote before her death for them to open on birthdays. Impetuous Jess reads them all at one sitting on her 12th birthday; pragmatic Emily prefers to savour them, one by one, over the years.

Goodman has been hailed as a modern Jane Austen; this is most evident in her depiction of the two sisters and their search for fulfilling love. Like so many of Austen's heroines, they are flawed in different ways and alternately frustrated and inspired by each other. Both experience a rite of passage that is influenced by the men in their lives.

Goodman could be criticised for cramming too many protagonists and subplots into her story, like an overstuffed pie. She creates an intricate web of connections, seemingly random acts by minor characters can become the catalyst for one of the (many) conflicts, and incidental details (a designer outfit, a particular wine, a ripe peach) are subtly imbued with symbolic meaning. It is some measure of her achievement that she juggles so many balls at once and manages to keep us enthralled although, admittedly, one of the principal connections in the story, involving the sisters' relationship with two rabbis, proves a little far-fetched.

The Cookbook Collector is a finely crafted love story set against a shifting social and political landscape. Ultimately, the complexity of the novel is one of its strengths. The joy of reading Goodman is that she stimulates and entertains in equal measure.

Originaly published in the Independent 4 March 2011