Allegra Goodman's second novel (two story collections by her have also been published) is the type of book whose subject matter might turn away many readers before they pick it up. She writes of a woman's spiritual journey of discovery, a topic about as inherently interesting as a dream journal.
So why is Paradise Park such a consistent delight? Because Sharon, the book's hero, is so human. She is at once idiotic, childish, funny and delightful, a woman with a serious case of spiritual Attention Defecit Disorder. For the most part, we feel a part of her navel-gazing, and through her we occasionally catch a glimpse of our own navel.
Goodman is a terrific writer in many ways. She displays encyclopedic knowledge of all things religious, spiritual, hippie and New Age, and she seamlessly weaves these concepts together to give us a convincing overview of American spiritual pursuits since the '60s. At the same time, Goodman is never afraid to expose the silly sides of such practices.
Sharon, Goodman's tabula rasa, starts out in the early '70s, at age 20, happily folk dancing with her boyfriend Gary. Sharon and Gary are a couple of socially correct hippies living in Cambridge, Mass. With no anchor, Sharon, through her first-person narrative, describes not so much a journey as a series of accidental jolts; she is adrift on the sea of life, and her story illustrates Newton's law that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. Her pursuits begin to have a direction, though just barely, after she receives a vision of God.
Sharon's relatively undisciplined drifting continues in excess of 300 pages and into present time. In less skilled hands than Goodman's, Sharon could very well become insufferable; one might want to slap her and tell her to grow up and get a job. But Sharon displays such sincerity and joie de vivre that it is hard to stay frustrated with her for long, and we instead find ourselves mourning her losses and enjoying her discoveries.
As told by Goodman, the story is hilarious and surprising. It teems with plants and animals and insects, its settings, such as Hawaii, so alive. Sharon is a spirited match for her backgrounds, voraciously burying herself in, among other things, Christianity and monkhood. Ultimately she begins to come closer and closer to her religion of birth, Judaism (Goodman is known for dealing with Jewish themes in her fiction), but she experiments with many sects before finding an appropriate one.
Along her journey, Sharon experiences many revelations and people. Some are well-conceived (such as Michael with his "black belt in meditation") while some don't quite live up to their allotted roles (early on we meet Brian, a man whom Sharon considers a dear friend, though Goodman never gives us a reason to believe it).
Sharon's relationship with life, with its delights and humor, are well-illustrated by her description of a religion professor:
Professor Flanagan came to each class dressed up in the style of the whatever prophet he was teaching, and actually took on that figure's voice and personality. So he gave all his lectures in the first person. He was Buddha, and Moses, and Jesus, and Mohammad -- except my year was the last time he did Mohammad, because a sophomore who was an Omani prince started offering the Muslim Students' Association a large reward for bumping off Flanagan for blaspheming the Prophet. ... That was Flanagan's charisma. It was as if he was inventing this stuff on the spot. It was as if he were standing there before you, coining the golden rule. And suddenly coming up with all the inspirational sayings, so that you listened to the Sermon on the Mount, and you felt like you were hearing it for the first time. And actually, in my case, I was.
Some may criticize Goodman for seeming to trivialize spiritual pursuits and even religions. In her realms of sacredness, nothing is sacred. But the truth is that the human foibles inherent in the creation of religion are the very ones which cause the need for such pursuits. If we are evidence of God's existence, then we are also evidence of God's sense of humor. Goodman makes the opiate of the masses so palatable, and I say Amen to that!