A sumptuous feast

"Jess had always been the less responsible sister, the whimsical daughter, the girl with the flyaway hair." And of course her older sister, Emily, was the serious, responsible one. More so, probably, because of the death of the girls' mother while they were still young children.

When we meet Jessamine and Emily Bach, they're in their 20s, in California, during the heady days of the late-20th-century tech boom. Jess is plodding along on a doctorate in philosophy at Berkeley while working at a used-book store; Emily is the founder of a dot-com about to go public, soon to join the instant millionaires.

But "The Cookbook Collector' isn't just the story of two sisters. Allegra Goodman's layered, multifaceted novel spirals out from Jess and Emily, encompassing the people in their lives, and the people in those people's lives. It never spirals out of control, though, staying tightly curled around the sisters at its core, even as the story unfurls over several years.

We meet rare-book dealer George and his friends and rivals, a group of save-the-trees activists, and an odd woman with an extraordinary collection of cookbooks. We meet Emily's co-workers, and her boyfriend, who's heading a tech startup of his own, and his co-workers. We meet a rabbi, whose brother-in-law (also a rabbi) lives in the same town back east as Jess and Emily's father, less a coincidence than a sign of how people, even a continent apart, are connected.

That's what "The Cookbook Collector" is really about: connections, and how our connections to family and friends influence our lives, affect our decisions, and shape who we are.

Goodman smoothly moves from sphere to sphere, from character to character, serving up course after course of interesting people, and a few who are perhaps not to our taste but are worth a try anyway.

Her spare, incisive observations of the characters fill them out without leftover words:

"... George had accrued so much that his life became one long struggle to conserve his property. How strange to live that way, like a snail, inside your own wealth."

"Retro CEO Dave carried a fountain pen. He even played golf. The man was like a car with fins."

As the dot-com bubble bursts and the calendar marches toward Sept. 11, 2001, we're struck by how some of the characters have grown, and how others can't or won't see what's going around them.

Money has infused the lives of most of them, but it affects them differently. For many, it's less about money than it is about power or beauty or service. For all of them, though, it's the people they're connected to — not money —who influence their choices and changes.

Emily has a newfound sense of family as she tries to find out more about her mother. And Jess has a newfound sense of responsibility as events force her to be, for once, the one who has to take care of her sister.

Like a rich, expertly prepared meal, "The Cookbook Collector" doesn't stuff us full, but rather leaves us sated, with an entirely pleasant memory of the experience.


"“The Cookbook Collector” by Allegra Goodman (The Dial Press, 394 pages, $26)