The Cookbook Collector

Normally I stay away from “re-tellings,” especially of Jane Austen books. Books “inspired by” Austen seem to bring out the worst in chick-lit cliches, as they tend to sneak in retro gender roles under the guise of maintaining historical accuracy. Or something.

I first heard of The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman, from a magazine mention (EW maybe?) that emphasized the book’s connection to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. In truth, the book’s flap jacket doesn’t mention it at all, and any sort of resemblance is loose at best.┬áThe Cookbook Collector describes two sisters, one sensible (Emily) and one sensitive (Jess), in modern day Berkeley and Silicon Valley.

Confession: I love books set in places I know. When Goodman mentions Top Dog, or Greens, or other streets in Berkeley, I get very excitable.┬áDespite my hyper-local prejudice, it’s a very lovely, thoughtful book. The characters are full-bodied and complex, and quite true to life to Bay Area types. One sister volunteers for a Save-the-Trees like organization, while the other sister’s start-up’s IPO just went public. And while their lives are undeniably modern, especially compared to the lack of choices afforded to 19th century women, what’s striking is how timeless those conflicts are: how much are you willing to surrender for those you love?

I’d see this book being a great bookclub choice, and a great holiday present for a booky friend. And if you don’t get hungry from all the luscious food descriptions found in the cookbook collection in the title, well, you might have a stomach made of stone.