'How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare that after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.' No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest of some amusement. — from Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1775-1817)
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August 1, 2010

Words for cups, recipes for spoons and spatulas...

The bell rang, and as the shop door opened, George backed away from the window lest he seem anxious. Surprised, he recognized the woman who walked in:  not Jess, but Sandra.

'Welcome,' he said, noting her cloth bag. She had come just twice over the past nine months, and each time she had brought an ordinary book. A first-edition Fannie Farmer and an old Mastering the Art of French Cooking. He had offered only ten dollars for the last, and she had left Yorick's in a huff. Then he concluded that, when it came to her uncle's estate, Sandra had already sold his the crown jewels, such as they were. 'Another cookbook for me?'

'No.' She pushed her long hair back over her shoulders, a gesture surprisingly young for a woman so gray. {Oh, ouch, that's a great line.}

'May I help you find something?'

'No.' She stood quite still before him. 'What I would like,' she said, and she spoke with precision, 'is to take you to the house.'

'To your house!'

'My uncle's house,' she amended. 'The house he left me. I'm interested in an appraisal.'

Why not? he thought. And why him? Did she want a second opinion? Or was he the first? Just how desperate was she?

'Some of the books are valuable.'

Let me the judge of that, he thought.

'Some are unique.'

'How many are there?'

'Currently,' she said, 'eight hundred and seventy-three.'

I don't mind admitting that I was drawn to this book because of its title, and what I hoped (initially) would be its subject-matter. I had heard of the author, Allegra Goodman, and had read good things about her earlier novels, but I've never read her.  People have also been describing her as a modern-day Jane Austen, and this book as a retelling of Sense and Sensibility (as people also said about Cathleen Schine's The Three Weissmans of Westport, one of my favorite books for this year).

By the time my reserved book came in, I had heard that the story focused at least as much on the dot.com and IPO frenzy of ten years ago. {Funny...if I had known it was a book about that, and it had a different title, I probably wouldn't have given it a a second look.}  Emily, the sensible sister, is the CEO of Veritech, a Silicon Valley data storage company that has just gone public. Jess, her sensitive, environmentally-conscious, grad-student sister, works part-time, and erratically, at a used book store owned by George, a software engineer turned dot.com millionaire.  The cookbook collector (actually, the precise and grey Sandra is the cookbook collector's niece) makes a brief appearance early in the book, but she doesn't emerge in earnest until almost halfway through. But that's one measure of a good story...by page 175, I had forgotten who Sandra was, and two pages later, there's a wonderful scene that pulls us in another direction, one that I found myself wanting to follow.

'The books are good. They're wonderful. Strange about the oven. But nothing's burnt.'

(But I should let you read it for yourself.)

I read something nice the other day expressing someone's sense of enjoying a book, and that made me think a little about how I (as a reader, not a critic) could 'tell' if I liked the book I was reading. It occurred to me that seeing it on the coffee table as I walked past, and wanted to get back to it, was a pretty good indicator. This was a romantic story, with tragedy and betrayal as well, and with quirky and interesting characters, and I think the author did a very good job of weaving the different storylines (the dot.coms. the cookbooks, the Bialystokers) together.

Is she a modern Jane Austen?  Not that I could really see...for one thing, Austen was well-known for not making only very fleeting references to what was happening in the world around her, and Goodman draws very heavily on the business and cultural climate, and the significant events, of the times.  Or is this Sense and Sensibility in modern dress?  It's kind of fun to think of how it's the same, and how it's different.  Emily trusts and feels the consequences (not a spoiler; you sense what's going to happen there); Jess, the flighty one, is more intelligent and thoughtful, and less self-involved, than Marianne. My favorite way to think about that is to picture George (my favorite character) as Colonel Brandon, old at 41, and besotted with a younger woman for no reason that the reader can readily see, although here we get the chance to understand it a little better.

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