Paradise Park

Article excerpt

by Allegra Goodman. New York: The Dial Press, 2001. 360 pp. $24.95.

Paradise Park, Allegra Goodman's second novel, is a darker, more panoramic rewrite of her story "Onionskin," which was included in the 1998 Delta paperback edition of her first story collection, Total Immersion. In "Onionskin," Goodman had abandoned the present-tense, third-person omniscient narration of her other stories for a double-voiced epistolary mode. "Onionskin" purports to be a letter from Sharon, a continuing ed. student at the University of Hawaii, addressed to her comparative religion professor. In trying to explain why she stormed out of Dr. Friedell's ponderous lecture on Augustine, Sharon tells him of her lifelong personal journey in search of spiritual enlightenment; she hopes that Friedell will accept the letter as her final research paper. Sharon's narrative voice was a funny, fresh-sounding middle-class vernacular that allowed Goodman the freedom to comment indirectly on the metaphysical crisis of postmodern MultiAmerica. Though Goodman identifies herself as a Jewish American writer, her comic fictions are more broadly concerned with the lingering traces of religiosity and cultural memory in our secular, distracted era.

For Paradise Park, Goodman once again narrates in Sharon's voice. The first half of the novel recasts the major scenes of Sharon's adult life leading up to the confrontation with Dr. Friedell. In 1974, as a twenty-year-old college dropout, she meets an older graduate student named Gary while folk dancing with a club at MIT. She follows Gary to Hawaii, where he plans to save indigenous bird species from extinction. But Gary's wanderlust is too strong, and he abandons her. Left to her own resources, Sharon struggles through a series of failed relationships, service jobs, and religious conversions, until she is prompted by a friend to return to college. At about the same time, she receives a postcard from Gary, postmarked from Jerusalem, expressing his wish for a reconciliation. Sharon begins corresponding with him and learns that he has become a born-again Jew and is studying at the Torah Or Institute. Through their letters, Sharon is persuaded that the newly spiritual Gary is her bashert; she leaves UH in the middle of her second semester with the intention of joining him at Torah Or. But Gary's orthodoxy and the mundane reality of Israel disillusion her. When she learns via telegram that the cat she has left with her roommates in Hawaii has contracted feline AIDS, Sharon decides to return home. This is the point at which she drafts her letter to Friedell, which she submits as the final paper for his course (a variant text of the "Onionskin" letter appears in chapter 14). …


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