Summer is in full swing, and long days at the beach cry out for absorbing and heartwarming novels. Here are three books we loved that fit the bill. And don’t forget our own Joan Schweighardt’s Under the Blue Moon—a literary investigation of homeless, recovery from tragedy, and the power of hope—released late last month. It is set during the summer and early fall. Or, if you’d rather imagine yourself away from sun and sand altogether, try C. P. Lesley’s Song of the Storyteller, which came out in January. Can’t do much better than a Moscow winter if you want to dodge the heat.
Allegra Goodman, The Cookbook Collector (Dial, 2011)
Easiest to say is that The Cookbook Collector takes place between 1999 and 2001 on both the east and west coasts of the United States, and the main characters are two sisters, Jessamine and Emily Bach (in their early and late twenties, respectively). The secondary characters (there are a number of them) are old and current boyfriends, co-workers, bosses, and neighbors who populate the lives of one or both sisters. At somewhat of a distance is their mother, who died quite young but left her daughters letters to be read on each of their birthdays. Also at a distance but in the more traditional sense is their father, who has remarried and has two additional (very young) daughters.
Emily and Jessamine are different in everything from their approach to when to read their mother’s letters—Emily reads one each birthday, per the rules; Jessamine read them all at once, before the book even starts—to their career choices: Emily is the CEO of a tech startup; Jessamine studies philosophy at Berkeley, works part-time in an antiquarian bookstore, and is a tree-hugging environmentalist. There are ongoing mysteries in the book. From Emily’s corner, will her start-up make everyone involved a lot of money when it goes public? And will it matter that she divulged a company secret to her competitor (whom she plans to marry) in an effort to prove her love? For Jessamine, will George, her employer at the bookstore, buy a collection of antique cookbooks? And will she conquer her fear of heights and spend time on a wooden platform high in a redwood tree as her activist boyfriend expects her to?
These are only a few of the questions that arise. There are actually too many of them to mention. But Goodman is an organized writer and she makes sure to give the reader the info she needs to keep up with (and maintain a frantic interest in) all of them. But what really sets this story apart and is hardest to get across without cutting and pasting excerpts is the writing and the passion that drives it. This reader sat with her hand on her heart, almost constantly verklempt.
The cookbooks in question, for example, are from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. People ate differently then. They were different, of course! Recipes included things like fold-out diagrams of table settings and French engravings of dessert spoons. Ingredients were “dug from the earth, plucked from the garden, slain in the woods. Animals still quivered with life, and required cleaning after slaughter. Red deer ran with blood, broth seethed.” And not only are the cookbooks lush with information about humanity past, but they are also full of notes, poem excerpts, and drawings written and sketched by their previous owner, now deceased but once very much alive and in love with a woman whose identity is yet another mystery in this enchanting novel.
It is a privilege to look over Jessamine’s shoulders as she catalogues the information in the cookbook collection. It is a wonder to be with Goodman when her language soars to the level of transcendental, as it does when she talks about the cookbooks, the notes therein, the mysticism of the Jewish community the sisters come into contact with, and so much more. This is a book of love, appetite, and yearning, all set in a historical moment most of us would prefer to forget. Beautiful, beautiful. Recommended for all serious readers.—JS
Jennifer Savran Kelly, Endpapers (Algonquin Books, 2023)
Dawn Levit has reached a crossroads in life. What seemed like a stable relationship with a gay roommate is becoming ever more complicated; frayed family ties will not mend soon, if they ever do; and half the time Dawn can’t even decide on waking up in the morning whether to dress as a woman, a man, or some combination of both. A job restoring old books for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York brings tactile and professional satisfaction, but it cannot compensate for the artistic inspiration that appears to have deserted Dawn just when it’s needed most.
When by chance Dawn discovers, in the endpapers of a water-damaged book, a love letter in German from one woman to another, the urge to identify the writer holds out the possibility of distraction from day-to-day problems. The book dates from the 1950s, making it difficult but not impossible to investigate the circumstances that caused the letter to be written, then hidden, and to discover the person who wrote it seventy years before.
The search opens a window for Dawn onto the history of the queer community in New York and elsewhere, offering opportunities for greater self-knowledge and a renewed connection with the artistic muse. In the process, it reminds us readers, too, just how fast our society has expanded its ability to accept gender fluidity and the spectrum of human love—even as certain political forces seek to narrow that sphere of understanding once more.—CPL
Luis Alberto Urrea, Goodnight, Irene (Little Brown, 2023)
This unusual World War II novel tells a fictionalized story of the author’s mother, who served as a Clubmobile woman, serving coffee and donuts to the American servicemen stationed in England, France, and, at the end, Germany during the war. Women joined up for many reasons—the loss of a brother, ennui, a violent fiancé, a desire to help the war effort. Lacking nursing skills, they thought they would only be serving food, but they found themselves facing real war. They suffered through bombings, firestorms, a sustained Nazi revenge on a little town in France, and the cold and rain of the long winters. Throughout, their mission was to be “charm on legs,” giving our boys a smile and a cup of hot coffee when all seemed lost.
The strange futility of the gesture is somehow overcome by how much it’s appreciated by the soldiers. Facing unspeakable violence, their endurance is severely tested, but the Donut Girls boosted morale with American English and a smile from home.
Irene and Dorothy are as different as they could be in their upbringing—Irene from a declining but genteelly snobby family, Dorothy a down-home farm girl. They weather the challenges in their own peculiar ways. The Author’s Note and Acknowledgments are well worth reading. The ending, while gratifying, was confusing at first, and seemed grafted on, but ultimately this is a book that will grab the reader from the first page and never let go.—CHL