It is November 1999 in Berkeley, California. Jessamine Bach is a poor, idealistic graduate student, while her sister Emily is the chief executive officer of Veritech, a major data storage start-up. As Veritech prepares to go public, Emily presents her sister with a splendid opportunity. By placing her on Emily's Friends and Family list, Jess is now eligible to buy 100 Veritech shares at a mere $18 a share. The problem is that Jess has no money, which is further complicated by the fact that she begins to yearn for those shares that Emily claims will surely make her a fortune.
Jess hesitates to ask her dad, Richard, who has a new wife and two toddlers, and has recently made pointed remarks indicating that he can't help her with her schooling costs forever. She approaches George, the owner of the rare bookstore she works in, but he turns her down. However, George is not immune to Jess, no matter how strongly he denies his fascination with her. Her financial backing comes from a most unlikely connection. Jess's neighbor, Mrs. Gibbs, suggests she talk to her rabbi, who is interested in technology. Rabbi Helfgott loans Jess the money, saying that while she is investing in Veritech, he is investing in her.
At work, CEO Emily must deal with co-workers much younger than herself during a trying period. Alex, Veritech's 22-year-old chief technology officer, is in love with her, which adds another layer of awkwardness to the stress in the office. But Alex is brilliant, and he wows Emily with an innovative plan for data monitoring. She immediately knows that Veritech must pursue this idea, although one of their financial backers voices concerns over the ethics of Alex's invention.
Emily and her boyfriend Jonathan have a long-distance relationship. She can't move away from her company in Berkeley while his own Cambridge data-security company is also on the verge of going public. They share their ambitions, which unfortunately serve to keep them apart.
Veritech stock skyrockets. Emily basks in her company's glorious future, but she can't stop thinking of her assistant's beautiful young children. Not all her dreams are coming to fruition, even as she finds herself worth $357 million --- on paper. Jess is now a paper "thousandaire." This doesn't keep her from her job at the bookstore, her volunteer work on behalf of Save the Trees, or a newfound relationship. As the sisters embark on a Thanksgiving trip to their father's house, the story branches out to include the interior lives of others. We come to know Emily's old beau Orion, Rabbi Helfgott's family, and more --- a large cast of characters related by the high-tech revolution that seemingly will make many of them wealthy beyond imagining.
Allegra Goodman weaves those many people and subplots into a tale that is satisfyingly full instead of (as it could have been in less able hands) overpopulated and confusing. Each character is alive and vibrant, their lives meeting and pivoting in believable but magical ways. The first part of the book is an excellent, gripping read. The story soars, however, when Jess explores an antique cookbook collection; what follows is transcendent --- buoyantly transporting readers to her world. In short, a pure delight. And a definite must-read.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on December 28, 2010
The Cookbook Collector