Context Is All

By Merkin, Daphne | The New Leader (Online), May-August 2010 | Go to article overview

Context Is All


Merkin, Daphne, The New Leader (Online)


Context Is All The Cookbook Collector By Allegra Goodman Dial. 394 pp. $26.00.

FROM HER first novel, The Family Markowitz (1996), Allegra Goodman has written in an American- Jewish idiom she has made distinctly her own. Neither shticky nor scabrous, it is attentive to both sides of the cultural equation - the larger contemporary scene, and the more insular tribal domain. In this newest and most ambitious book she has broadened her scope considerably, taking on a cast of characters that includes dot-com milhonaires and rare book dealers, ultraobservant Jews and college students with their heads in the sky, once again demonstrating the ease with which she navigates between secular and spiritual realms.

Unlike most of her peers who traffic in specifically Jewish material, Goodman does not seem to feel the need to color-code her world with ethnic stereotypes who exist for comic relief or premodernist flavor. Rather, she has found a way of bringing the carefully circumscribed experience of Jews steeped in ritual to bear upon the no-holds-barred experience of culturally assimilated Jews without selling either group short.

The Cookbook Collector, however, is not primarily about what it means to be a traditional Jew in modern America; that is merely one of the many concerns it touches on. Its leitmotif, if it can be said to have one, is the meaning of money in a world of paper fortunes and the value of love in an age of businesslike romances. The book is set in the "Computational Era," when "information was currency," over a period of a little more than three years. It begins in the fall of 1 999, in the "brave new world" of Internet start-ups and IPOs, and ends in the spring of 2002, after the chastening effect of 9/11.

We enter the story just as the two young sisters at its center, 28-year-old Emily and 23 -year-old Jess, are meeting for dinner in a San Francisco restaurant. Emily, "tall and slender with her hair cropped short," is the CEO of a Bay area start-up called Veri tech. She dresses elegantly - "She was an MBA, not a programmer, and it showed" - and is finery put together, with "delicate" features and fingers that are "long and tapered." Jess, meanwhile, dresses in jeans and sweaters, as befits a Berkeley graduate student in philosophy, and makes a bolder physical impression than her older sister: "Her face and mouth were wider than Emily's, her cheeks rounder, her eyes greener and more generous. She had more of the sun and sea in her, more freckles, more gold in her brown hair."

As is clear from the density of detail that accompanies the introduction of the sisters, Goodman is not one to shy away from rich - sometimes overly rich - descriptive passages. Like 19th-century novelists whose evocative skills had not yet been pre-empted by the arrival of the movies, she eschews spareness for a more lavishly rendered effect and sees fit to use overripe phrases like "in the gloaming" as though Hemingway had never come along and thrown adjectives out the window.

Indeed, one of the most striking things about this novel is its profusion, its pouring on of backstories even for minor characters who appear only once, such as Jess' roommates: "Theresa and Roland lolled on the couch watching Wuthering Heights on Masterpiece Theater. Theresa was studying comparative literature and writing a dissertation that had something to do with migration, borders, and margins. She'd grown up in Honolulu but couldn't swim. Roland was lanky and wore pleated pants and a dress shirt and gold-rimmed glasses; he worked as a receptionist in the dean's office." Similarly, when a Thanksgiving dinner is served, we get the full menu, including the table setting: "The tablecloth was harvest gold. The salt and pepper shakers, Pilgrims. Barbara served turkey, sage and onion stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and com bread. . . ."

Context, in other words, is all, and since this is a novel that puts much faith in bookishness - invoking Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf and TS. …

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