Faith and Love in 'Paradise Park'
Allegra Goldman '89 comes out with a second novel.
By Allegra Goodman
The Dial Press
432 pp., $24.95
The concept of bashert, Jewish destiny, lies at the crux of the action of Paradise Park, the new novel by Allegra Goodman '89. And as Sharon Spiegelman, the novel's narrator, declares, "Bashert was here to stay." The novel tracks Sharon from the 1970s to the present, as she fleetingly adopts different lifestyles. Sharon tries to find her niche in almost every spiritual institution imaginable, from the Greater Love Salvation Church to a marijuana farm in Hawaii, from the Consciousness Meditation Center to the Torah-Or Institute in Jerusalem. The object of Sharon's quest throughout all of her divergent spiritual paths is revelation. Sharon yearns for God to flash the answer to all of her questions right before her eyes, to hit her over the head and yell, "This is your bashert."
In a world in which Richard Gere is the Dalai Lama's right-hand man and city-dwelling yuppies clamor for classes in Jewish mysticism at the Y, Sharon's predilection for spiritual fads is nothing new. And given her estranged relationship with her alcoholic mother and rigid father, Sharon's story is a typical one psychologically as well. What distinguishes Paradise Park from many of the other novels that explore spiritual questions is the fact that Sharon eventually gets her answer--she finds her bashert. Goodman's novel is an affirmation of spirituality and an exploration of the way in which a person's religious status affects her personal happiness. Along the way, Paradise Park raises such ambitious questions as the relationship between belief, religious authority and individual expression.
But in the end, the novel only teases us with these metapyhsyical questions. Paradise Park is certainly an affirmation of the contentment thatcomes from finding a comfortable religious niche, but the novel is so devoted to exploring the personal development of Sharon Spiegelman that it leaves us without insights that extend beyond her character. Paradise Park presents Sharon's flaky affairs and her thoughts about God and love in an enjoyable style, but Goodman does not provide any voice of her own behind the character. We are presented with such high-reaching concepts as religion, destiny and true love, but Sharon treats these concepts with limited depth, and therefore, so does the novel as a whole.Goodman demonstrates that the real tension in Sharon's life is not a lack of spiritual signs, as Sharon thinks. Instead, Sharon suffers from the inability to reconcile her independent nature with her conscious desire to structure her life and find the security of belonging to a fixed community. She cannot enjoy the freedom of life in Hawaii, nor can she confine herself to a Hasidic community in Brooklyn. For all of her wild times and lofty goals, Sharon is conventional at heart. She yearns to be nothing more than middle-of-the road. She takes a long, winding road to figure out her destiny, and in the end her destiny is to live in a modern Orthodox community in a Boston suburb with her husband and child.
Sharon's other journey in Paradise Park, apart from her religious exploration, is her attempt to find love. She endures many unsatisfying romantic relationships in Paradise Park, and when she finally settles on Mikhael, a man who is also seeking to find his Jewish roots in a Hasidic community, Sharon's personal growth is evident. She has finally forged her own identity so that she is ready to have a relationship of equals with Mikhael. Sharon is a musical perfomer, and Goodman uses music to trace Sharon's development throughout the novel. With her previous boyfriends, Sharon wrestled for the spotlight. When she forms a band with Mikhael, we realize that she has finally learned to "sing" with someone else. And unlike her spiritual journey, Sharon's route to love with Mikhael is truly moving. Paradise Park is Allegra Goodman's second novel. She received a great deal of critical acclaim for her first novel, Kaaterskill Falls, as well as for her two previously published collections of short stories, Total Immersion and The Family Markowitz. Goodman is clearly a talented writer. Her style allows her to move easily from colloquial dialogue to poetic descriptions. The characters in Paradise Park are wonderfully vivid, especially the exasperating but always lovable Sharon. The character of Sharon Spiegelman, in fact, originates in Goodman's short story "Onion Skin," which appeared in Total Immersion. Perhaps the character is in fact better suited for a short story than for a full-length novel. She is memorable and charismatic, but her insight is spread too thinly to give real weight to Paradise Park.