Allegra Goodman has a singular gift for full immersion in vivid, miniaturized worlds, whether steeping herself in the upstate New York pastorals of 1970s Orthodox Judaism (National Book Award finalist Kaaterskill Falls) or the cutthroat politicking of cancer research (Intuition). In her sixth novel The Cookbook Collector, she ups the stakes with a deft literary hat trick, expertly braiding disparate threads involving dotcom start-ups, environmental radicalism, and rare-book collecting into one consistently engrossing narrative.
As the story opens in 1999, twentysomething sisters Emily and Jessamine Bach are a study in contrasts: One's a driven tech executive in Silicon Valley; the other, an impoverished Berkeley grad student/bookstore employee with a penchant for sprout sandwiches and seductive tree huggers. A revolving constellation of characters Emily's golden-boy fiancé and instant-millionaire colleagues, Jess' brusque, ponytailed boss, George are made fully flesh and blood by Goodman; sometimes more so, even, than her protagonists. She especially excels at capturing the precipitous rush of the then-nascent tech boom, with its breakneck innovations and backroom intrigues, while simultaneously recounting Jess' increasing absorption into the ornate and distinctly analog world of high-end bibliophilia. Even as Cookbook strikes a rare bum note with a late, left-field revelation, Goodman delivers a novel of impressive élan and real emotional resonance. A–