PARADISE PARK, Allegra Goodman's follow-up to her critically acclaimed novel, KAATERSKILL FALLS, is about one woman's spiritual journey that covers over 20 years, several relationships, and a handful of religions. The term, "spiritual journey" might sound a little heavy, but as far as main character Sharon Spiegelman is concerned, it's not. Sharon is desperate to find a deeper meaning, so she turns to God, in varying cultures and religions, to search for enlightenment. Every time she thinks she has found the answer, it falls from her grasp and she is forced to start over. Despite the number of false starts and abruptly ended relationships, Sharon's spirit is ever buoyant, and her sense of humor travels with her from state to state. It sounds like it would be an uplifting and quirky novel, and at moments it is, but more often the quirks become irks.
According to one of the reviews, PARADISE PARK is a "tragicomedy" and in a sense it is. Even when Sharon faces spiritual and emotional malaise, her sense of humor still shines through, but that doesn't make up for her ultimately frustrating character, who I often felt the urge to grip through the pages and shake (unfortunately, one of her boyfriends feels the same way and acts on this). Sharon is desperately searching for enlightenment by embracing the cause, religion, or man, closest to her. At the start of the novel Sharon is feeling rather low, having been just abandoned by her blinky eyed hippy boyfriend, also her folk dancing partner, with whom she traveled to Hawaii after dropping out of college. Just 20, estranged from her divorced parents and without a friend in Waikiki, Sharon takes her few possessions --- which include a macramé bikini, a guitar, a couple of Indian gauze skirts, and her grandfather's silver watch --- and starts her adventure that spans 20 years.
After the folk dancer leaves her, Sharon follows many different paths. First she journeys to an island to study birds, then ends up prancing around naked in the rain forests of Hawaii, growing pot with her new boyfriend. When that doesn't pan out she tries exploring religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, and Judaism, to name a few, then attempts to go academic and get her BA in religion. It's hard to keep up with Sharon and her shuffling of causes, boyfriends, and religions. To be fair, she has had little support throughout her life --- from her alcoholic mother who abandoned her at age thirteen, to her thrice married father who doled out reprimands and rules but no love, to a series of dimwitted boyfriends. It makes sense that Sharon is seeking love, acceptance, and the divine, but that doesn't make her flighty journey any easier or enjoyable to follow.
Many times I felt more like a beleaguered traveler and exasperated friend than an entertained reader. Maybe it's because I have fancy free friends with threads similar to Sharon's running through their own macramé bikinis, or maybe it's because Sharon's life, and Goodman's artful but relentless description of it, is tiring all on its own. When Sharon finally does fall in love --- for real --- I don't quite believe it at first. I'm not sure if it's because it happened so fast, or that I was expecting her love to wane as it did for so many men and religions before. It's a relief that Sharon finally does settle down, however out of character it may seem, as she comes full circle back to Boston 20 years later.
As maddening as her escapades had been throughout the novel, there is something so simple and beautiful about the last page that makes the journey worthwhile. The wandering woman has come to terms with herself and is finally able to enjoy life --- enjoy dancing, the feeling of grass beneath her feet, and the lyrical music. While she twirls, she sings and, for the first time in her life, she knows the words and her place in the world.