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Ron Charles's review of "The Cookbook Collector," by Allegra Goodman

By Ron Charles
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; C01

THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR

By Allegra Goodman

Dial. 394 pp. $26

Don't let that cozy title turn you away from Allegra Goodman's new novel. Although "The Cookbook Collector" sounds like something about a Potato Peel Pie-making cat who solves mysteries, it's actually a thoughtful story about the disruptions of the early 21st century.

Yes, it's awfully charming, but the book's charm is grounded by a searching contemplation of contemporary values in the age of sudden fortunes, sensational bankruptcies and terrorist attacks. This is, after all, the gracious world of Allegra Goodman, whose most recent adult novel, "Intuition," shed her sprightly wit on cancer research. I can't think of anyone else who manages that precarious tone so well, balanced with Zenlike tranquillity between genuine mirth and heartfelt despair. She describes modern life in stories as witty and astute as Zoƫ Heller's or Claire Messud's but without a drop of bitterness.

"The Cookbook Collector" follows the gonzo trajectory of the Nasdaq, and since each chapter is dated -- from the heady autumn of 1999 to the chastened spring of 2002 -- anyone old enough to drive will suspect what's approaching. (It also includes such an effervescent description of the stock market crash that you'll almost forget why you can't retire until you're 92.) For several hundred pages, though, this delightful romantic comedy beguiles us into ignoring gravity, like those giddy investors who imagined they were geniuses.

At the center are two sisters in their 20s living in Northern California: Emily, the older, responsible one, is a financial wunderkind whose data-storage company, Veritech, will propel her onto the Forbes list. The only person who couldn't care less is her free-spirit sister, Jess, who's pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy and working part time in a used-book store. She'd rather save trees than money.

There's a classic sitcom incompatibility between these siblings (Versace vs. vegan), and I suspect there's an autobiographical element to this tension, too: While Goodman earned a PhD in English literature, her sister became an oncologist, and there must have been times when scanning lines of poetry seemed flighty next to saving people's lives. In any case, the affection that transcends Jess's and Emily's frustration with each other remains the heart of "The Cookbook Collector" as the book's multiplex plot spins out beyond them.

Far beyond them. As an author, Goodman is the courteous host who can never say no to the arrival of one more guest. I wasn't always persuaded that her book had room for all these people, but even when Goodman just lightly sketches in side characters, they somehow get right up off the page and start pulling on our affections. While Emily wrestles with the challenges of her nascent company and its staff of programmers and administrators, her superman boyfriend, Jonathan, has his own Internet start-up in Massachusetts called ISIS, and sometimes the two sisters fade in the background as we switch coasts and watch Jonathan and his colleagues and their friends and family.

All these sympathetic characters lure us into the card-table boardrooms and 24-hour computer labs back when the World Wide Web was as open and potentially lucrative as the Wild Wild West. It's a thrilling, fully realized domain -- was it just 10 years ago? -- when the laws of physics and finance were suspended and kids dropped out of college to issue billions of dollars of stock in companies that made no profit, often made nothing at all. (Checked your Pets.com shares recently?)

In this novel explicitly concerned with the morality of business, Goodman has staffed the two Internet start-ups -- Veritech and ISIS -- with young people who want to realize their liberal idealism, like that new silly-sounding search engine that insists, "Don't be evil." But as she suggested in "Intuition," it's funny how confusing a few hundred million dollars can be. "What a strange effect money or the idea of money had on people," she writes in this lithe critique of wealth and corporate culture.

Looking at "The Cookbook Collector" alongside Adam Haslett's "Union Atlantic," Jess Walter's "The Financial Lives of the Poets" and Eric Puchner's "Model Home," I'm convinced that American novelists are slowly creating as vibrant and incisive a record of the decade's economic chaos as our great nonfiction writers, such as Michael Lewis, Gillian Tett and Andrew Ross Sorkin. This rich body of art and reporting may be the only lasting restitution we get for the havoc wreaked by Lehman Brothers, et al.

But cheer up -- "The Cookbook Collector" is a romantic comedy, regardless of its serious dot-com, ticker-tape subplot. That enchanting aspect comes from the adventures of Emily's sister, Jess, the whimsical philosophy student, who eventually reasserts herself as our heroine. Yorick's, the used-book store where she works, is owned by a single man in possession of a good fortune, so you should have a pretty clear idea of the universal truth we're pursuing here. George is a retired Microsoft millionaire, a good-looking, 36-year-old curmudgeon who has given up on relationships. He's "too selfish to marry anyone" anyhow, and he's constantly complaining about Jess and her granola ideals.

Their prickly banter is a giveaway, but long after we've started rooting for them, Jess is still protesting, "We don't agree on anything." Can love bloom between a judgmental, uptight bachelor and a dreamy tree-hugger who won't eat honey from "indentured bees"? Can these opposites finally overcome their pride and prejudice?

Admittedly, too much is going on in this novel. Although a liberal rabbi assures Jess that "there are no coincidences," that gets harder and harder to believe as they pile up in these pages. And a final revelation of a long-lost family would make Gilbert and Sullivan blush.

The larger problem, though, is that all this busyness pushes the spiritual component to the margins. Like Dara Horn and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Goodman has produced superb works about Jewish mysticism, particularly "Kaaterskill Falls," her National Book Award finalist, and "Paradise Park," her comic survey of American spirituality. But in "The Cookbook Collector," the rabbi drops in now and then, an extra matzoh ball we could take or leave. His hearty faith is only one more quirky ingredient of a story that can seem too lightly mixed.

Still, God knows plenty of delicacies are simmering in "The Cookbook Collector," including some hilarious descriptions of food from an antique cookbook collection that excites Jess's boss (and, of course, introduces more characters). Goodman is a fantastically fluid writer, and yet for all her skill, she's a humble, transparent one who stays out of the way, never drawing attention to her style or cleverness. Even if you're coldhearted enough to resist Jess's sunny appeal, you're likely to fall for her creator.

Charles is the fiction editor of The Post. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter/roncharles.

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