I finished reading The Cookbook Collector on the eve of Facebook’s IPO. Normally the workings of the stock market and its boy wonders barely graze the
underbelly of my radar. But in your stunning novel, you took me on a dramatic and accessible tour through the tail end of the Nineties’dot.com heyday. Better yet, one of the best, brightest, and most bent on success CEOs is actually wonder woman, Emily Bach, MBA. If that weren’t reward enough for this feminist, by your story’s end, Emily turns out to be a Jewish woman!
Also making news while I was reading The Cookbook Collector was the ongoing struggle of book publishers and independent book sellers to remain relevant and profitable enough to stay in business even as self-publishing and monopolization threaten to displace them. But in your novel, old print books are highly prized items, sought after by the retired Microsoft millionaire, antiquarian bookstore owner George Friedman.
Rare old books also intrigue the grad student who works for him, Emily Bach’s younger sister Jess. You see to it that each sister has a love affair born in the context of her work. Emily is engaged to another ambitious and highly competitive dot.com CEO who turns out to be traitorous and whom you severely punish. But you reward Jess and George when they fall in love, their relationship nourished by the beautiful well-used cookbooks they explore. Admittedly biased by the fact that I’m a writer, I interpreted their lovely wedding as your endorsement of books over bucks. Bravo!
So how do you make a novel about business into a literary triumph and a page turner? It’s partly your scope which is broad enough to include not only the dot com bubble, the events and aftermath of 9/11, two love stories, and a few Bialystok Jews and environmentalists, but it’s also your prose and pacing. You layer precise and often wryly comic insights and images in such a way as to repeat important themes without seeming repetitive. In your opening paragraph you violate the rule cautioning writers not to begin their novels with descriptions of the weather by describing a September rainstorm in Silicon Valley. After a brief lovely word picture of the storm, you add, “Like money the rain came in a rush, enveloping the bay, delighting forecasters, exceeding expectations, charging the air.” The two words, Like money turn your initial paragraph from a beautifully phrased weather report to a reminder of the rush of the quick buck and how, like rain, money can stop coming and give way to devastating drought. This comparison, unexpected itself, also reminded this reader of the danger of unrealistic expectations. After reading this one crucial paragraph, I was eager to meet the characters who people a world where money rains down and then, perhaps, dries up. And you keep up the pace, firing big ideas at us in few well-chosen words and encapsulating big moments in swift-moving prose-poetry.
legitimized my urge to someday write a book centered on specifically Jewish themes and characters. They were among the novels that moved me to write The Bones and the Book. But The Cookbook Collector becomes an overtly “Jewish novel” only near the end when Emily and Jess discover that their long dead mother was Jewish. This unexpected plot twist illustrates how a writer can integrate Jewish characters and themes into stories that, like modern American Jews, have finally escaped ghettos and restricted neighborhoods and now turn up almost everywhere.
I also appreciate your affectionate and empathic treatment of the Bialystok Jews whom you might have satirized for their messianic zeal, gender bias, and old fashioned get-ups. But instead you focus on their talent for community building and ancestral memory, not to mention fund raising. For it is the Bialystok rabbi who makes his initial investment, not in the market but in Jess, a human being who needs a loan. I found it extremely ironic that his relatively small investment of $1,800, a meaning-laden number in the Jewish tradition, pays off not only spiritually, but financially as well.
The Cookbook Collector is a wonderful read and has already broadened the scope of my next book. Again, bravo and thank you.