Saturday, October 16, 2010

Who Cares What You Throw In There When You Mix it So Well?

A few months ago, Austenprose did a review of Allegra Goodman's latest, The Cookbook Collector.  She got rave reviews, as she is apparently "the modern day Jane Austen", which seems to mean that she's a good writer whose genre is somewhat social commentary.  Now I'd never heard of her before, but apparently I'm the last one - Chava R. says she loves her books, which I didn't find suprising, but Sarah S. laughed at me when I asked if she had heard of her, and said that she, Yaffa, and Malka all hadn't liked this book as much as the others.  So with that said, I will of course be reading the rest of them... but first let me talk about this one. 

It was naturally with some trepidation that I even took out this book, because whatever the modern Jane Austen is, she isn't the writer of light and funny romance where everyone is either totally likeable or not meant to be liked.  There's seriousness, there's complications, there's weighty issues... in short, this ain't chic lit.  And much as I keep proving to myself that good writing matters, I just don't like reading books for the writing.  But, you know, I don't think an author would ever be compared to Jane Austen without having happy endings, and Laurel Ann (austenprose proprietor) really raved about her, so I thought it was worth trying.  And you know what, it was.  Right off, I just wanted to keep reading.  Despite the fact that there were a lot of not such likeable characters and tension out the wazoo, she somehow managed to write a book that was fun to read.  Fun enough that I read half of it on the subway, even when standing! (and almost missed my stop a few times :)) (sidebar, I think that's the biggest advantage to public transportation - time to read!) So as far as the writing goes, this is a case where good writing is everything.  But it's not good writing in the sense that the prose is magical or amazingly descriptive - it's more like the pace is just perfect, there's exactly the right amount of detail to captivate without getting boring, and the plot has enough small twists to be riveting without being improbable.  And I really liked that almost every character gets a voice at at least some point - which can lead to some unexpected sympathy with some rather unlikeable characters.

So that was the good part.  And it was good, definitely good.  But there was *plenty* to complain about.  Let's just start with the tension, which I mentioned already.  This book is like the poster child for dramatic irony.  It's about computer firms in the late nineties, early oughts, forming IPOs... yes we all know where that went- but they didn't. (side note - it was funny reading about the heady optimism of software companies at the same time I'm starting at Google... but of course, there's not really such a comparison - I hope :)) So of course, the whole time I'm reading it, I know that all that money is going to go down the toilet and everything is going to be a distaster... so it's like, what's the point of even caring? But you know what, I cared anyway (read the paragraph above :)) and as it turned out, it wasn't even a big deal.  Both companies survived the crash at least, and no one ended up disastrously poor (yay :)) (oh and this review is going to be full of spoilers, so stop right now if you care). 

But then of course, when I got over that there was the next big event on the horizon... September 11.  As Sarah S. pointed out, it fit with the time period, so I guess I don't really fault her for putting it in, but did Jonathan have to die on the plane? Even if she had to kill him (which she didn't, a breakup would have been way more satisfying IMO), it didn't have to be that way.  I just don't have patience with using September 11 for dramatic purposes.  It has a way of turning it into history that I don't like.  In general, I felt like the whole book relied too much on these kind of deep and dramatic moments for a plot.  There was September 11, there was a dead mother, there was a long-lost family... I thought it was a bit much, especially because so much of the book moved along just fine with the ordinary stuff.  Relationship issues, job/school issues,  family issues, maybe a little bit of existential issues... but nothing that doesn't happen to half the world, if you know what I'm saying.   Oh and there was a whole lot of stuff involving Lubavitchers (called Bialystockers for legal reasons I assume) that was very positive on the whole, but still just made me uncomfortable (of course).  And then there's the number one complaint - why everyone else didn't love it - the ending! Of the two sisters, Jess ends up with a great guy (and a decent kind of romance leading up I guess), while Emily ends up okay - with a start up that I don't find impressive and no guy as of yet.  And frankly, Jess does not deserve her luck.  She really doesn't ever grow up throughout the book - she takes care of Emily when she needs her, but whoop de do.  And poor Emily, who always did everything right, ends up content, but not in a great place... so what's the point? Okay, I know the point... this is real life we're talking about, and everyone deals just perfectly with it in the end, so yay for them.  But as a reader, come on, give me what I want! :)

Verdict: 3/5 - because whatever my complaints, she is one great writer (please no more comparisons with JA though :))
Food: something I'm skeptical of that turns out to be great... tofu! I'm so proud of myself for thinking of it, it is *perfect* for this book - healthy first of all, and so much fun in a way b/c it cuts up so nicely... but boring in lots of other ways.  But it was so good the way Chava made it on Thursday night!

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