Sense and Sensibility
Today, I picked up a paperback copy of one of my absolute favorite books of 2010, Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector. The novel, which borrows its structure from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, tells the story of two twenty-something sisters, Emily and Jessamine Bach. Emily, a 28-year-old graduate of MIT, is the CEO of Veritech, a start-up company involved in data storage. She is smart, dispassionate, and engaged to another wildly successful (and, as it turns out, ruthlessly ambitious) internet entrepreneur; she has the sense. Jess, on the other hand, is a PhD. student in philosophy at Berkeley. She is also an environmental activist and romantic (unsurprisingly, Jess falls quickly and hard for the egotistical leader of a militant group devoted to saving the redwoods) who works part time at an antiquarian bookstore; she has the sensibility. Goodman interweaves the sisters’ narrative with events of great historical import: the boom and bust of the technology bubble and the September 11 attacks both play crucial roles in the plot of the novel. The Cookbook Collector is a fascinating look at a specific cultural moment and, more importantly, a rich portrait of two very good but ultimately flawed characters.
Yet this description fails to do justice to the imaginative power of Goodman’s work, and in particular to Goodman’s ability to convincingly imagine herself into a host of secondary characters. The Cookbook Collector treats an incredible number of minor characters seriously and at length: Jess’s boss, George, the curmudgeonly and handsome bookseller who turns out to be Jess’s true love; Emily’s fiance, Jonathan; his programming co-workers at the start-up ISIS; Emily’s personal assistant; even a Bialystok rabbi. For each of these characters, we are given access to personal histories and present predicaments; we see the ways in which each character negotiates the many moral dilemmas of a time flush with cash but ripe for catastrophe. The book requires a reader’s patience, the willingness to follow Goodman as she momentarily puts aside Emily and Jess to dilate upon other stories and other psychologies. Goodman sees each character, no matter how minor, as worthy of attention and sympathy.
Goodman’s refusal to center her novel exclusively on Emily and Jess reminds me of a famous passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Eliot has spent much of the novel’s first half sympathetically describing her youthful heroine, Dorothea, and the disappointment she experiences in her marriage to the older, severe scholar, Casaubon. Chapter 29 begins:
One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea—but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? I protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for these too will get faded, and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect. In spite of the blinking eyes and white moles objectionable to Celia, and the want of muscular curve which was morally painful to Sir James, Mr Casaubon had an intense consciousness within him, and was spiritually a-hungered like the rest of us.
We are all the protagonists of our own stories, Eliot says, and a novelist who does not acknowledge this fact, who is unwilling to see that even the most unattractive character possesses depth and value just by virtue of being a thinking, moral being, isn’t a novelist worth reading. For Eliot as for Goodman, the decision to expand a novel’s focus from the center to the periphery, from the hero to the secondary character, is not just an aesthetic act; it’s also an ethical one.
Goodman is often compared to Jane Austen, and rightly so. Like Austen, Goodman has a great ear for dialogue, and like Austen, she possesses the ability to clearly and humorously delineate the mores of various subcultures. (In The Cookbook Collector, it’s the world of internet start-ups; in Intuition, it’s the world of laboratory science; in Kaaterskill Falls, it’s the world of Orthodox Jews.) Yet I still think that, in her moral seriousness and in her empathetic impulse, Goodman is most like George Eliot. Regardless of which comparison makes the most sense, everything Goodman writes is worth reading, and The Cookbook Collector is the best thing she’s written yet.
(On a sidenote, I can’t begin to explain how frustrated I am by the marketing of The Cookbook Collector. Despite the fact that the novel talks about serious social issues like environmentalism and the dangers of rampant financial speculation, despite the fact that it weaves its romance story around historical events like the dotcom bust and 9/11, the book is being sold as a syrupy romance. Take this blurb from the New York Times, featured prominently on the paperback’s front cover: “If you’re hankering for a feast of love, let yourself fall under the spell of Allegra Goodman’s abundantly delicious tale.” Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a feast of love; that’s just not what this novel is (or, it’s certainly not all that it is). The description on the back cover, meanwhile, ends with this gem: the novel is about “holding on to what is real in a virtual world: love that stays.” What a sad state of affairs, when a writer of Goodman’s scope and complexity has to be pigeonholed in such a reductive, transparently gendered way. For a great look at this problem, read Gabriel Brownstein’s essay on the differing receptions of The Cookbook Collector and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom at the Millions.)