The headline may be that novels by American women creatively at ease with their hyphenated cultural heritages — all those best-selling books in recent years featuring Chinese- and African- and Irish-American heroines — have extended the sight lines of contemporary fiction in vital ways. The subhead is that the portrayal of Jewish-American womanhood — while not quite as stop-the-presses an occurrence as a new book by Amy Tan or Terry McMillan — is also undergoing a profound transformation, thanks to the unfettered voices of exciting writers as different from one another as Binnie Kirshenbaum, Myla Goldberg, and Allegra Goodman.
For these younger authors, Jewishness is an active part of their heroines’ lives as women, and the less noisemaking the integration of Jewish identity into everyday activity, the more remarkable the literary revolution. (Debra Messing’s Grace Adler on Will & Grace, who refers as easily to her bas mitzvah and her days at a Jewish summer camp as to her straight sex life and her gay roommate, is, I’d argue, a Jewish revolutionary by TV standards.)
I like Kirshenbaum’s provocative heroine Lila Moscowitz in Pure Poetry for her sexual wildness; I like Goldberg’s mystical-minded young spelling champ Eliza Naumann in Bee Season for her intellectual, cabalistic fervor. But most of all, I love the women of Allegra Goodman’s wise short-story collections Total Immersion and The Family Markowitz, and I love her lithe, compassionate novel Kaaterskill Falls (a 1998 National Book Award finalist) for the grace with which the author weaves commitment to religion with a humor born of tolerance for the essential, profound, evolving crazy-mixed-upness of women and American Jewishness.
This is a long spiel by which to arrive at a discussion of Paradise Park, but the scene-setting is important, I think, to put this virtuoso writer’s new novel in context: In place of clan-oriented stories told in the third person — those intergenerational Markowitzes, those fervent Orthodox families in their Kaaterskill bungalow colony up the Hudson River — Goodman now turns inward. She writes in the first person about the spiritual and sexual evolution of a young woman, Sharon Spiegelman, who grows from being a 1970s-style, tie-dyed, secular-Jewish hippie chick who’s passionate about ethnic folk dancing in Cambridge, Mass., to praying as a modern Orthodox Jewish mother who’s in love with Torah study in Cambridge, Mass., some two decades later.
Sharon is a notable departure from Goodman’s family-oriented heroines — a young woman estranged from blood relatives. Her parents are divorced, her brother dead, and her spiritual interests grow as much from her need to create family out of friends, lovers, and workmates as they do out of a hunger in her soul. Like so many in her generation, Goodman’s heroine drifts without plan or career goal (the 1970s being the last decade in which such ambitionless existence was applauded) from boyfriend to boyfriend, job to minimum-wage job, succor to succor. She’s abandoned in Hawaii by a boyfriend with whom she has moved to assist his research project on birds; she takes up with a half-Hawaiian guy who introduces her to the fervor of a native gospel church. With another beau, she has a vision of God while whale-watching. At a Pentecostal millenarian revivalist church, she’s temporarily saved by Jesus. And at an interfaith discussion group, she gloms on to the rabbi who first leads her back toward her own religious roots — a guide who, she realizes, was reaching out to her ”because we are related…. He knows the text and the letters and the sound and the voice, and deep down he knows me, because I am his relative! He knew me first.”
There are stretches in Paradise Park when this modern-day heroine’s journey tilts heavily toward the wild tales of Scheherazade, as Sharon makes her wide-eyed, chatty, ready-for-everything pilgrim’s way from Cambridge to Honolulu to Jerusalem to Seattle to Brooklyn and back to Cambridge again. And at such junctures, some of Goodman’s short-story-style jauntiness would have been welcome. ”And then something inside of me woke up,” Sharon announces over and over, executing fancier leaps of faith than Kierkegaard could ever have dreamt of.
But even when some of those leaps are a tad too fancy for a skeptical reader to trust, even when this ardent story loses track of Sharon born of the family Spiegelman and deposits the folk-dancing wanderer on bumpy spiritual roads, it’s clear that this ardent Jewish-American woman is a member of the family Goodman. And as such, she’s a worthwhile family member to know.