Book Review: “The Cookbook Collector” by Allegra Goodman

Ten years ago, I made a major career trajectory change.  For my whole career, I’d been a Big Pharma guy and with a move to Southern California I started working for Start-Up Biotech.  Now those were pretty heady days – investors were throwing money at new biotechnology companies.  Maybe they weren’t throwing as much money as they had at the genomics companies of the early 1990s, but still, biotech was a land of milk and honey where the sky was as high as your salary and you could dream of changing those thousands of stock options you got into the type of windfall that you’d need scientific notation to keep track of.  Hell, it happened to that guy that worked in the building next to you – he was a thirtysomething millionaire that just a few years before had been a struggling post-doc.  Why not you too?  Everyone bought into the narrative.

Of course, things don’t really work out that way for most people.  Towards the end of 2001, the biotech bubble burst and suddenly companies started drying up.  Lay-offs (known as RIFs, for Reduction-In-Force) were followed by many (maybe most) companies going out of business.  And those stock options you had weren’t worth the paper they were printed on.

Allegra Goodman’s 2010 book “The Cookbook Collector” remarkably captures the eye-popping zenith and gut-punching nadir of the tech boom from a decade ago, though her book focuses on the dot-com boom-and-bust (not the biotech bubble).  In a sort-of-but-not-quite-Jane-Austen-like story, two sisters — one a driven dot-com CEO, one a directionless Berkeley grad student – are the main protagonists.  We follow their careers (or lack thereof), their loves, their family, and their choices over a few tumultuous years.  You get a sense for what it was like to be in the right place and the right time and then the wrong place and wrong time, almost overnight.

The Cookbook Collector- A Novel

As I read the book, I was stunned by the echoes it returned from my own experience. Her characters seemed to be drawn from the people that I’d known.  They had the same strengths and foibles:  Brains and arrogance.  Insecurities and intuition. Camaraderie and deviousness. It was uncanny.

Goodman does a great job of interweaving the two sisters’ stories – never really together, never totally apart – and that anchors the narrative of the novel as it works towards its resolution, which I found very satisfying.

I don’t know if everyone will find “The Cookbook Collector” as engrossing as I did, but if you’ve worked in technology – and especially if you lived and worked through the tech bubble of the early part of the last decade, I highly recommend it.

Five stars out of five

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11 thoughts on “Book Review: “The Cookbook Collector” by Allegra Goodman

  1. Ah! I’ll have to read this one next. During the dot-com boom, I remember so many of my friends telling me I should either put money into these companies, including this little software company called Microsoft, or go into the field myself as web designer or owner. I laugh at it now—we thought just owning a web domain was going to make us rich!—but some people did become very rich quickly, and when the bubble burst, they fell so spectacularly I don’t even know what became of them. In some ways, I admire these people for their hubris and drive; but after seeing “The Social Network,” I don’t think I want to sacrifice human relationships for wealth. Brilliance is good, being rich would be fun, but loneliness isn’t.

    • HG — it’s funny, but there’s one character in the book that is retired because he made a fortune in the software boom (you get a sense it’s Microsoft) — and he’s like the “old guy” because he’s not a dot-commer. Pretty ironic.

  2. I like the name Allegra. It is really pretty. Sounds like an interesting book, but I may skip this one. Your story sounded great though. Publish that.

  3. I’ve been meaning to read this one. I read her book “Intuition” (about scientific misconduct) and found it to be a really good read.

    And now that both you AND smeutaw say I should read it…. Well, I’ll put it on my Kindle wish list.

  4. Pingback: 30 DoB, Day 29: I Liked It, You Didn’t | Stevil

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