Ditched by her boyfriend, estranged from her family, the protagonist of Paradise Park
wakes up in a Waikiki fleabag on the first day of the rest of her life, dreaming of God. This is in the 1970s, and Sharon Spiegelman doesn't initially strike the reader as a likely candidate for religious conversion. She's a 20-year-old hippie folk dancer from Boston, with a guitar and a crocheted bikini and hair down to her hips. Finding herself in paradise, however, Allegra Goodman's heroine begins a quest that lasts a quarter of a century.
Seldom proceeding in a straight line, Sharon begins by counting red-footed boobies as part of an ornithological census. Soon she's cultivating marijuana in the jungles of Molokai. In these adventures and subsequent ones, Sharon displays a sweet nature but questionable judgment when it comes to romance and gainful employment. Drifting through a string of dead-end boyfriends and jobs, she eventually has a vision of God during a whale-watching cruise. And this enlightenment leads her into the fold of the Greater Love Salvation Church, a Pentecostal revivalist sect, where's she left in a state of temporary beatitude:
I'd heard the expression before of walking on air, but this was the real thing, because when I left that church, my feet were so springy that as I walked, they barely touched the ground. It was like my head had floated up and my neck had gone all long and slender like a giraffe's so my face was a little giraffe face up there, bending and bobbing in the breezy night air. And I walked all the way back from Manoa to Waikiki, back to the hotel in the darkness, and smelled the flowers and just caressed the whole world with my eyes.
Suffice it to say that the Greater Love congregation is only the first stop in a quest that eventually leads Sharon to spiritual and corporeal fulfillment in Hasidic Judaism. As always, Allegra Goodman has a light touch with serious matters, and in Paradise Park
she creates a surprisingly complex and endearing heroine. --Victoria Jenkins
From Publishers Weekly
Goodman's (Kaaterskill Falls) marvelous new novel involves a woman's tragicomic search for spiritual meaning, a journey as physically peripatetic as it is emotionally migratory. As always, the key to enjoying Goodman's fiction is gradual immersion. Her narratives do not feature razzle-dazzle plot twists or melodramatic peaks, just quietly eddying waves of emotions and events that slowly build to a tsunami of insight. When, in 1974, college dropout and folk dancer Sharon Spiegelman follows her lover from Boston to Hawaii, where he runs off with a new girlfriend, she begins a 22-year odyssey distinguished by an earnest (but nave and often foolish) quest for enlightenment. Her first mystical vision of "resting in the palm of God" comes on a remote island where she has joined an environmental group; disillusionment follows. A second vision gleaned while whale watching proves similarly exhilarating, then deflating. On and on Sharon goes, bouncing from one epiphanic experience to another, changing boyfriends, menial jobs and mentors, positive each time that she has solved the puzzle of existence and ascertained her place in the world. But each new venture--whether raising marijuana; embracing a Pentecostal Christian sect, then New Age and Buddhists beliefs and practices; dropping acid; re-enrolling in college to major in comparative religions; living with Bialystocker Hasids--fails to give her lasting solace. But Sharon is learning positive truths even as she despairs of finding the answer to her cosmic questions; and her voice, a pitch-perfect mix of irreverent vernacular punctuated by hyperbolic exhilaration, is a comic triumph. Sharon's story is in essence a spiritual picaresque saga, and when she at last finds both true love and a satisfying religious commitment, she must undergo the painful test of reconnecting with her self-absorbed parents, and learn to forgive. Readers will finish the novel feeling that, given faith in the ultimate goodness of life, things can turn out right. Author tour. (Mar. 6) Forecast: Major ad/promo, including sponsorship announcements on NPR, plus a whimsical cover in an eye-catching yellow, will alert readers to Goodman's new novel; the author's golden reputation and the rave reviews this title will draw will do the rest in making this mini paradise-park of a book a well-deserved bestseller.
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