Allegra Goodman's remarkable first novel intertwines the stories of three Orthodox Jewish families, each of whom is tugged between religious tradition and the secular world. The story takes place in the upstate New York town of Kaaterskill, summer Mecca for the tightly knit Kirshner sect. Model wife and mother Elizabeth Shulman pictures her community as a sort of Mont-Saint-Michel, an island both joined and separated from the outside world as if by rising and falling tides. Fascinated with what lies on the spiritual mainland, she hides behind the reassuring rhythms of religious observance, though she's inspired with a "desire, as intense as prayer," to create something all her own.
Despite her pious husband's doubts, she does, in the form of a store catering to Kaaterskill's "summer people"--a community Goodman brings memorably to life. The Shulmans' neighbor Andras Melish, a Hungarian who fled World War II and a vanished world of assimilated European Jewry, struggles to understand his young Argentinian wife Nina, whose need for tradition grows with each passing year. The ailing Rav Kirshner must decide which son will carry on in his shoes: dutiful but plodding Isaiah or his brilliant but secular brother Jeremy. Andras and Nina's daughter befriends an Arab girl, while Elizabeth and Isaac's daughter dreams in secret of Israel. Meanwhile, the town's year-round residents observe the Orthodox newcomers with bewilderment and occasional dismay.
As she proved in a warm and funny 1996 collection of stories, The Family Markowitz, Goodman is an unparalleled observer of human nature. Here, she charts with quiet assurance the daily rhythms of Kaaterskill: the meals prepared and eaten, the Holy Days observed, the ebb and flow of married life. Goodman gets all the important details right; her children's dialogue, for instance, is unerring. Above all, however, she brings to the subject of religious life a seriousness and subtlety rarely found in recent fiction. Wise was the word used again and again to describe The Family Markowitz. Applied to Kaaterskill Falls, it is no less apt.
From Publishers Weekly
The quiet wisdom expressed in this novel and the clear lucidity of its prose would make it a remarkable achievement for any writer. What is perhaps most impressive here is that its author (who wrote the praised The Family Markowitz) is only in her early 30s and has already acquired the psychological perceptiveness and philosophic composure of someone of more mature years. The world that Goodman conjures hereAa small Orthodox Jewish sect who migrate every summer with their leader, Rav Kirschner, from New York's Washington Heights to the upstate old Dutch community of KaaterskillAmay initially seem exotic and remote to most readers, but the scrupulously rendered background of religious observance is the stage on which Goodman dramatizes the universality of human behavior. Beginning her narrative in July 1976 and ending it two years later, Goodman chronicles the small oscillations in the lives of some two-dozen characters. There are other Jewish summer residents, more secular and of higher social status, whose families came to Kaaterskill before the advent of their more observant brethren. The old Yankee families watch with dismay the gradual loss of their property and the town's identity to these strange interlopers. And there are marginal figures who stand between them, notably an ambitious real estate developer who changed his name from Klein to King and is scorned by both communities. With insight, affection and gentle humor, Goodman builds her narrative with scenes of marital relationships, domestic routines, generational conflict, new love and old scandals. Quiet heartbreak occurs, too. Elizabeth Schulman, the much-admired, calmly devout mother of five daughters, almost enjoys the fulfillment of her ambition to do something special with her life until her business project is forbidden by rabbinical decree and she gains a new understanding of a woman's possibilities and limitations among her people. The dying Rav sees clearly the limitations of Isaiah, the dutiful son who will be his successor, and the brilliance of his prodigal son, Jeremy, who in turn finds that his intellectual rebellion has left him spiritually desolate. On the other hand, Holocaust survivor Andras Melish breaks through his anomie to a peaceful contemplation of his blessings. Goodman conveys her characters' religious convictions with a respectful but slightly skeptical eye. Her tenderly ironic understanding of human needs, ambitions and follies, of the stress between unbending moral laws and turbulent personal aspirations, gives the narrative perspective and balance. In knitting the minutiae of individual lives into the fabric of community, she produces a vibrant story of good people accommodating their spiritual and temporal needs to the realities of contemporary life. She does so with the virtuosic assurance of a prose stylist of the first rank.
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