Tech Bubble Returns in Austenish Tale of Rich CEOs, Bad Lovers

Allegra Goodman sets “The Cookbook Collector” during and after the tech bubble of the 1990s; her main characters are mostly gazillionaires or soon-to-be gazillionaires or, after the downturn, gazillionaires reduced to millionaires.

The book revolves around two sisters: Jess, a philosophy student at the University of California, Berkeley (not rich), and Emily, the chief executive officer of a Silicon Valley startup (shortly to be loaded). Like sisters in a Jane Austen novel, one is a dreamer and the other a doer, and their personalities play out in the ups and downs of their love lives. A subplot involves their deepening relationship to Judaism, the religion of their long-dead mother.

Emily, the CEO, is in love with Jonathan, a hard-charging East Coast tech whiz with a firm whose IPO will shortly follow hers. Jonathan’s brutal competitiveness (his idea of success “was annihilating his rivals”) and lack of refinement (“His idea of a corporate Christmas party was paintball”) set off alarm bells early; when Emily trusts him (insanely) with a trade secret, it becomes clear she’s more like the idealistic Jess than she appears.

Jess, the student, isn’t smart about men, either. She falls into a halfhearted affair with the smarmy leader of an environmental group she leaflets for while failing to pick up on the true passion in George, the owner of the used bookshop where she works part-time.

George is almost twice her age and he’s tech rich, too, having been on the Excel team in the early days of Microsoft Corp.; he has retired now into collecting and connoisseurship. The cookbooks of the title (itself oddly off-point) belong to a rare lot he’s eager to buy.

Twinkly Prose

“The Cookbook Collector” would be more fun to read if Goodman were less intent on delighting. Her prose twinkles at you with such steely determination that you can practically pinch the dimples in its fat little cheeks. It would also help if her concerns were as large as her characters’.

She’s done just enough research into the tech bubble to achieve plausibility for her setting; her curiosity ends there. Her only real interest, outside of getting the sisters back to their Jewish roots, is their romances.

You wait for Emily to divine the truth about Jonathan. You wait for Jess to see the love in George’s eyes, and once she does you wait for them to overcome the manufactured obstacles Goodman has put in their way just to make you wait some more.

You wait, with some apprehension, as the dates under the section headings move inexorably toward September 2001. Jane Austen famously kept politics out of her novels, but a writer who uses 9/11 as a plot device doesn’t have that luxury. Would that she did.

Political Opinions

Though the book is full of political opinions, Goodman more or less rolls her eyes every time somebody utters one, especially Jess, a vegan, a tree-hugger, “a paper feminist, just as Emily was a paper millionaire.” All in all, a fount of callow platitudes. But when she finds herself drawn to Nachum Helfgott, the Bialystok rabbi of Berkeley, a kind of Hasidic Kris Kringle -- “burly, bearded, and gregarious” -- you wait for the platitude that doesn’t come.

The adorable fundamentalist in the black frock coat wants to bring Jess back into the Jewish fold. Fine. But can it truly never occur to this cartoon of a p.c. student leftist to challenge him, or at least to question him, on the controversy that’s probably caused more shouting matches on the Berkeley campus than any other issue: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

That would be too real-world -- not sufficiently delightful. The absence of even a mention is a measure of the phoniness of this feel-good book.

“The Cookbook Collector” is published by Dial ($26, 394 pages). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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