Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

The Cookbook Collector is described by the publisher as a "modern take on Jane Austen."  Le sigh.  As I have mentioned in previous postings, I am not a huge fan of authors borrowing plots and characters from classic lit.  (Or contemporary lit, for that matter, but I don't see it much due to copyrights).  In fact, I probably would have avoided The Cookbook Collector like the plague, except that A) the title includes the word cookbook, which always makes me perk up my ears since I adore food fiction; and B) -- and this is the real shocker -- my husband mentioned that he wanted to read it.


My husband is a wonderful person and a loving and supportive spouse, but contemporary lit is not his cup of tea.  Apparently he was listening to a review on NPR that compared it to Dostoevsky.  Well!!!  I marched right over to the computer and put my name on the library's hold list.  Sadly, this book bears little resemblance to Jane Austen; I haven't actually read Dostoevsky (he's on my to-read list, I swear), but I'm guessing not so much like his writing either.  Not that it's a bad book, but if you're looking for Jane Austen's trademark wit, you're out of luck.

Note:  if you have not read Sense and Sensibility, there may be spoilers below.  If you have read it, then there may be spoilers for The Cookbook Collector.   

To her credit, Ms. Goodman doesn't really stick that closely to a Jane Austen plot.  The two main characters are very loosely based on the Dashwood sisters from Sense and Sensibility, but just in that the older sister, Emily, is practical, like Elinor, and younger sister Jess is emotional and passionate like Marianne.  That's pretty much it.  Well,  Jess does have an older man who is attracted to her, and she does have an unhappy relationship with a young environmentalist, but it's really very little like the romance between Willoughby and Marianne like in S&S.  Jess, a graduate student, has a part-time job working for a rare book dealer, George.  The title of the book comes from an appraisal job George and Jess are working on, a collection left to a slightly eccentric woman by her even more eccentric uncle, who has a basically priceless collection of old and valuable cookbooks.  As Jess begins to explore and research the amazing collection, she discovers deeper feelings for George, and we all know how their story ends.

The Emily story was much more disappointing.  I suppose I would have liked it more if I hadn't expected it to be remotely related to Sense & Sensibility, which it really isn't, just that Emily is level-headed and practical like Elinor.  She's a dot-com millionaire!  How is this related to Jane Austen???

Seriously, the whole idea of a modern update of Jane Austen is really a stretch for me.  One of the dominant themes in every one of Austen's works is that women had to marry well because they had no other choices, and that just doesn't apply any more, at least not in Western culture.  Now, if you moved the action to the Middle East, I would probably find it much more believable.  Back in Regency times, if a woman of Jane Austen's class didn't have a dowry and couldn't find a rich husband, she was faced with few choices: marrying beneath her; becoming a governess; or becoming a spinster dependent upon her family's charity.  Nowadays women can pull themselves up by their high-heeled Manolo bootstraps and be pretty much anything they want, despite the glass ceiling.

This book also has a bunch of side stories about the dot-com bubble, backstabbing corporate politics; September 11 (again, not a spoiler if you notice that this book is set in the late 1990s); Judaism; long-lost relatives and family identity.  I really wish this book had focused more on the cookbook collector plot, since to me it was the most interesting part of the book -- not just the food-related aspects, but the relationship between Jess and George.  Of course, I also have a library degree, so I found the research into the rare books fascinating;  it's making me contemplate a return to school for classes in preservation and rare-book handling.  In general, I just think there was just too much going on, and not really Austenish at all. If this book hadn't been described that way, I probably would have liked it a lot more.


  1. I guess my thoughts are - what is the point of a new Jane Austen? She was good for her time period BECAUSE of her time period. Women don't live the same now, and class differences aren't the same now. I don't get people trying to recreate a time period from a couple hundred years ago in modern times.

    (sorry, that was a bit of a tangent...)

  2. No, not a tangent, I totally agree. That's one reason I think modern retellings are silly. That and writers should come up with their own characters and plots. I've read very few sequels/prequels/retellings that are even worth mentioning. Off the top of my head the only one I really liked was Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

  3. Enjoyed your post and can very much empathise with your non-contemporary lit-loving partner-plight.

    You're a food fiction fan? I have a bad habit of constantly recommending books, even to people I don't know - so apologies for my presumption (actually, that sounds rather Jane Austen-ish)but have you read 'The Food of Love' by Anthony Capella? Light, decadent escapism - but it made me seriously reconsider my vegetarianism! I'm also hearing incredible, salivatory things about the '100 Foot Journey' by richartd Morais but haven't been able to get my hands on it yet. For what recommendations from a stranger are worth...

  4. Baker's Daughter -- thanks! I actually have an ARC of The Hundred Foot Journey (courtesy of Amanda's giveaway!) but haven't read it yet. There are so many great food memoirs and new food fiction books, I may have to post a list of my favorites and to-reads. I will add The Food of Love to the List. Thanks for the recommendation!

  5. First of all, if I read that a book was compared to Dostoevsky, I would run far far away!!! I recently completed a readalong of The Brothers Karamazov and it taught me to avoid any books by Mr. D like the plague! I can't imagine how it compares ... unless it is filled with endless pages of philoslphical debate that make your eyes glaze over.

    And I wouldn't have thought this was one of "those" books -- the Austen inspired books. It seems like every other book I see is some kind of update or remake or reimaginging of Ms. Austen's work. Weird.

    Loved your review.

  6. I liked Wide Sargasso Sea too, but it really didn't feel at all like Jane Eyre. The Rochester in it didn't match up for me, so it felt less like a sequel or modern retelling. I guess that's probably the same reason I loved Rebecca and didn't really notice it was meant to be a retelling of Jane Eyre as well. It felt original enough, you know?

  7. Jenners -- thanks! I have fear of Dostoevsky, too -- our IRL group is reading Notes From the Underground next year, I'm crossing my fingers that I'll get through it. It's pretty short though.

    Amanda -- I actually read Rebecca first, in high school. I vaguely made the connection when I read Jane Eyre in college. I don't really think of it as a retelling but as vaguely inspired -- I think Du Maurier's characters are distinct enough on their own, and it's so well done I still love them both. I didn't even think of Rebecca when I was trying to come up with a good retelling of a classic!


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