Atlantic £12.99

The Cookbook Collector, By Allegra Goodman

A sisters' story that's big enough to take on its literary forefathers

The Cookbook Collector, Allegra Goodman's sixth novel, recently caused something of a stir after one frustrated reviewer complained that gender bias had prevented it being considered a Great American Novel alongside Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.

Superficially, the two books are similar. Both are awash with contemporary grand narratives: the environment, the internet, economic booms and busts, 9/11. Both dramatise these themes with intimate and unabashedly emotional storylines.

Goodman's begins in California just before the millennium and ends shortly afterwards. It is a tale of two sisters: organised, rational and successful Emily, and the younger, chaotic and carefree Jess. Having lost their mother at an early age, Emily decides to get rich quick while Jess drifts into student life and environmental campaigning. Their respective characters are reflected by the men they fall in love with. Emily, the CEO of an upwardly mobile dot.com venture, chooses Jonathan, the ultra-competitive CEO of another upwardly mobile dot.com venture. Jess is torn between two men who at one point literally diverge in a wood: Leon is a charismatic but smarmy eco-warrior, while George is a father-figure who abandons Silicon Valley for an antique bookstore called Yoricks.

Jess's love triangle could be compared to the ménage à trois in Freedom, only Goodman's literary memory runs deeper than 2010. She calls upon an entire library of 18th- and 19th-century fiction to craft her tale. Emily and Jess are dead ringers for Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. In the opening chapters, hardly a page goes by without a reference to Wuthering Heights or Henry James. The effect, at least to begin with, is slightly off-putting. I imagined Goodman as an over-eager graduate student, name dropping nervously in a bid to impress. It isn't enough that "Yoricks" recalls Shakespeare; Jess reminds us that it also alludes to Tristram Shandy.

As the plot unfolds, however, shifting deftly from one character to another, Goodman's sense of literary history hits home. This is a novel deeply concerned with notions of value: does George love his first editions of Plath and St Vincent Millay for their dollar or artistic worth? Can a poem, an idea or even a person even be owned? The intersection between love and money forms the novel's pivotal moment when a post-coital Emily tells Jonathan about her firm's top secret high-tech project as a token of her love.

Yet, even as Goodman pries open these 21st-century concerns, she knows there is nothing new under the sun. Her opening paragraph tips a knowing umbrella towards Bleak House: "Rain at last .... Rain drummed the little houses skyrocketing in value in Cupertino and Sunnyvale .... Like money, the rain came in a rush." Dickens's fog may have been transformed into a metaphorical deluge, but it's still just water. The characters who man the lifeboats in Goodman's novel have some sense of history.

Like Dickens (and indeed Franzen), Goodman's finale teeters on the edge of sentimentality: she knows her superior romance fiction, and believes that love can conquer all. But her characters have seen enough to know that this victory is fragile and momentary.

The Cookbook Collector is wise, moving, and every bit as impressive as Freedom. It may not be original, but it's mature enough not to care. "We'll become a cliché," George says of his May-September relationship with Jess. "So what?" she replies.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor