Silicon Valley Sisters

Allegra Goodman updates Austen

There are some homes that I visit that feel instantly comfortable to me. Maybe it’s the smells wafting through the rooms or the eclectic array of books on the shelves — A Tale of Two Cities crammed next to Sefer Ha’agadah. Elements may be distinctive but nothing is too far out of my comfort zone. It is as if I’m thinking, “I’ve never tried this recipe but I’d love to add it to my collection.” The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman (Dial Press, $25.00), inhabited this same space for me, the familiar house in which I easily and happily feel at home.

Goodman’s latest novel (after Intuition, The Family Markowitz and others) is the story of two sisters, Emily and Jess, set against the backdrop of the digital revolution of the 1990s. The story follows their trials and triumphs in work, family, and love. Emily, the elder, is ambitious and accomplished, the CEO of an Internet startup company. Set as her sister’s foil, Jess is a free-spirit, more concerned with saving the world’s trees than making money grow on them.

Goodman strikingly overturns the dichotomy she presents; true to life, the flighty sister can be amazingly grounded — Jess catalogues a collection of antique cookbooks — and the methodical sister finds joy in the occasional experiment. Goodman highlights the emotional see-saw between sisters: I’ll stay up when you need to go down.

The novel also speaks of a familiar, not-so-distant past. Goodman poignantly portrays the disappointment and disillusionment of the earlier part of this decade: “Looking back, analysts could predict the crash. They spoke of weak fundamentals, softening in the tech sector, reckless speculation. But who can measure appetite, or predict the limits of desire? Who can chart love’s parabola, from acquaintance to infatuation to estrangement?” This is a question that both sisters must answer: Emily’s boyfriend owns his own startup in Boston, confident that they are all going to be rich someday soon; and Jess finds herself increasingly close to her boss, a retired Microsoft millionaire turned antiquarian bookseller. The cycles of boom and bust, love and lust and loss, are brilliantly dramatized in this novel about seeking connection in the Internet age.

Hadar Schwartz is a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the City University of New York.