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September 1, 2014
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'Paradise Park' by Allegra Goodman
Season's readings: ‘Paradise Park’
Sunday, April 01, 2001
By Sharon Dilworth
Allegra Goodman’s new novel is a rare treat. It’s one of those novels that get more interesting as it unfolds. The development of character, the abundant details and the graceful language make for a surprising and refreshing read.
We open in Hawaii, where Sharon Spiegelman, abandoned by her folk-dancing boyfriend Gary, wakes up in a Waikiki fleabag motel and realizes that everything in the room is nailed down. This detail is an ironic ploy -- for this is a novel of flight and adventure. Stillness never factors in.
College dropout, vegetarian and with family troubles, Sharon has followed her boyfriend from Boston, where she had been sure they would make a life together once they settled in Hawaii. Fortunately for Sharon, Gary has other plans and heads to Fiji.
Wounded and resentful but aware that she’s spiritually lost, she begins a journey of self-discovery. The story is a bit tricky: While it first seems that the focus will stay on Sharon’s desire to find love, i.e. another boyfriend, the novel moves to a much more original level.
Sharon’s journey is not frivolous. This is a real soul-searching, what-are-we-doing-here, what-is-God and does-he-exist? mission. In the hands of a less talented writer, this might sound like 1970s jargon, but Goodman makes it believable. More important, she makes it valuable.
She is a master of atmospheric details and fills Sharon’s journey with hilarious twists and turns, from counting red-footed boobies with ornithologists to cultivating marijuana in the nude.
Finally, Sharon goes whale watching, but instead of whales surfacing, she sees God. The sight of God in the ocean, a place where she least expected to find him, convinces Sharon that she must devote herself full-time to her religious explorations. She tries everything -- churches, synagogues, prayer groups and religious classes -- and while the novel is humorous, Sharon’s search becomes more and more serious. Ten years pass, and the time reflects the magnitude of Sharon’s undertaking.
“This thing I had about looking for truth. The truth about what? About God? About the universe? Who did I think I was kidding? Truth probably wasn’t meant for humans.”
Sharon eventually journeys to Jerusalem to catch up with Gary, who’s now a religious zealot, but she is only exasperated by his pedantic attitude toward her mission.
It is a relief when Sharon finally comes to the end of her journey, but as reader, I was greatly disappointed -- I wanted to continue turning the pages of this wonderful world. As satisfied as I was by the end of the search, I could have followed Sharon Spiegelman for 10 more years.
Sharon Dilworth is a short-story writer and professor of writing at Carnegie Mellon University.
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