There is no earthly reason for me to like this book. It’s a voice-heavy, first-person narrative with lots of interior monologue and a semi-picaresque plot and a protagonist who makes a lot of really stupid mistakes. Just to be clear, I am well aware that the sentence I’ve just typed more or less describes my life – but nevertheless, this is not the sort of book I usually enjoy. Its protagonist is Sharon Spiegelman, who when the novel opens is a twenty-year-old college dropout who is traveling around the country with her boyfriend Gary and performing Israeli folk dances in various venues. Gary wants to be more active in environmental politics, so he decides to go to Hawaii to meet an ornithology professor with whom he has been corresponding. His plan is to help with both the scientific and political/environmental aspects of saving endangered birds. Sharon joins him in Hawaii – they plan to put on dance performances to raise money – but he soon meets another woman and abandons Sharon in Honolulu with nothing to her name except her return ticket.
Sharon’s family is in the Boston area, but she feels no compulsion to go home. Her father is an economics professor, and we receive hints that both he and Sharon behaved badly during her adolescence; as a result, neither wants to be in the other’s company. The rest of the novel, then, is the story of what Sharon does instead of going home to Boston – though eventually she does end up back in Boston and settles there, married and happy, at the end of a twenty-year odyssey.
Throughout the novel, Sharon is endlessly sure that whichever random stranger she has met most recently holds the key to her spiritual identity – but along the way, this spiritual quest involves a good deal of romantic and sexual drama. When she starts to date a man she meets at one of the many jobs she holds, she begins going to his Fundamentalist Christian church. Later she enrolls in a series of religion courses at the university of Hawaii. When she makes some hesitant inroads into Judaism, she is hired to teach Israeli folk dancing at a local Jewish women’s society. She lives for a while in an “intentional community,” and later she lives with her boyfriend Wayne, who has no religious or spiritual life of his own, and while Sharon is with him she abandons her spiritual aspirations. In every one of these incidents, Sharon is absolutely sure that she is on the verge of discovering her true self and thriving as that self forever, which is infuriating and sad, of course, since of course each of these spiritual paths hits a dead end.
For me, one of the most moving episodes of the novel takes place just after Gary leaves Sharon. The only people Sharon knows in Hawaii at this time are the ornithologists she met when she was still with Gary. When they find out that Gary has left her and that she has nowhere else to go, the ornithology professor, Brian, offers to take her with him and some of his grad students to study the red-footed booby on some tiny islands in the French Frigate Shoals. The French Frigate Shoals are so tiny that the first thing any scientists who visit them have to do is re-map them: at any given time, some of the islands will be above water and others will be below. Even though she is hardly a scientist, Sharon becomes immersed in the role of naturalist: “Although [the birds] were only two feet high, they did not seem short. We were crawling around at their eye level, and so, to us, the birds had almost human stature. We thought of the boobies that way – just as if they were these white sharp-eyed aristocrats who happened to have red feet. It was as if we’d arrived on these islands inhabited by bird people. And there we were trying to interpret their screams. What were they telling each other? What were they trying to say to us? We were like bird disciples, we were straining so hard to understand” (30).
This episode has all the makings of a spiritual experience: the humbling of the human scientists before the wild birds, insights into the scale of creation, the suppression of the ego: “We almost forgot ourselves in deference to the birds… There was this mystical silence that grew up among us, because we were all listening and looking so hard at nests. And that was my first glimpse of the world, I mean, the creation: the heavens and the earth, and the birds in between. In the mornings we all sat up and saw the sun rise… in the morning light the ocean spread out around us and you felt how the land was just a speck out there in the water, the ocean tides sucking, sucking the teeny shore just like the island was sucking candy. You felt out there under that blue sky and in that sea you might actually be resting in the palm of God” (31). Sharon has less transcendental moments on the islands too: “We’re all impostors. No wonder the birds look at us like that. The boobies’ faces were like kings on coins – so noble but also so disgruntled. Who do you think you are? they asked us. How dare you? I lay awake in my sleeping bag, all alone, and all around me in the dark I could feel the birds staring with unforgiving beady eyes” (33).
Sharon’s ego comes back, of course; it comes back in full force the minute she finds out that she won’t receive credit as a co-author of the paper that Brian and the graduate students will be writing and she storms off to find new friends and spiritual guides. One of the wisest pieces of advice I’ve ever been given – it came from a creative writing professor who meant it as a guide to writing fiction, but it’s pretty damn useful in real life too – is this: epiphanies are temporary. Epiphanies, in real life and in fiction, are powerful, life-altering events, but they only alter our lives for maybe twenty-four hours. A week or two, occasionally, or maybe a month at most. But mostly they come in glimmers, and when they go away, they leave us only with a memory of how our lives almost changed in some fundamental way, but didn’t. This notion could be an epigraph to Paradise Park. Everywhere Sharon goes, she thinks she’s found answers to all of her questions, and her feelings of betrayal and despair when her epiphanies depart, leaving her behind with nothing but her imperfect self and a collection of people she suddenly decides she cannot stand, are painful to read about – partly because she seems to learn from her mistakes so slowly, but also because they are convincing and human and real. This authenticity is what saves this novel from being just another coming-of-age picaresque throwaway novel.
Sharon’s journey takes her to Molokai, where she and her fundamentalist Christian boyfriend help his sister and brother-in-law harvest marijuana; to a Zen monastery, where again she struggles to conform to the expectations of another religious community (and effacing her desires is hardly something that Sharon does well); to a marriage-counseling resort, where she works as an administrative assistant; and back to the University of Hawaii, where she reconciles with Brian and the other ornithologists, meets a feminist professor who helps her out of a few difficult situations, and briefly enrolls as a religion major. She even reconciles with Gary, who by this point is studying in an orthodox religious school in Jerusalem – exchanging intense religious letters and then flying to Jerusalem to see him, only to discover that the Orthodox community he is a part of requires unmarried men and women to be segregated from one another – and of course it goes without saying that Sharon doesn’t like the rules there. When she returns, the reader is treated to the long, poorly-written rant that Sharon turns in as her final term paper in her religion class. This portion of the novel was especially cringeworthy for me, and I’ll admit that I sympathized more with the professor than I did with Sharon, even when he reads her terrible essay aloud to the class and Sharon overreacts like this: “That was my essay Friedell was quoting up there. That was my exam he was exploiting in his lecture! There he was, plagiarizing my work, while at the same time flunking me for it! My eyes went wide. I clutched my notebook to my chest. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe what was going on in this class! All my calm went by the wayside… Out the window. It’s just that I was not a very calm person! It’s just that he was getting off on my failed efforts. Appropriating them. Mocking them for his own personal entertainment! He was raping me in front of a hundred people” (170).
Sharon is not much of a student – and this incident marks the end of her sojourn in academia – but as a seeker she is the real thing, and the insights she arrives at along the way are authentic. I still can’t say exactly why I enjoyed this novel in spite of the fact that I would loathe Sharon Speigelman in real life, though I suspect the answer has to do with Allegra Goodman’s talent, which is considerable. Creating a character who is such an unspeakable mess – yet also so good and deserving of happiness – and sustaining over almost four hundred pages a first-person narrative voice that emerges directly from the emotional center of the protagonist’s brain, while still allowing moments of irony when the reader can detect the presence of a much more rational intelligence that is in fact controlling the action (and laughing at it a good bit too), must have been a tremendously difficult task. Yet Goodman pulls off this balancing act over and over again. Here’s Sharon meditating on yet another failed spiritual experiment: “I’d been good at dropping out, no question. But when it came to tuning in, just what frequency had I been on? As a lotus-eater I was a natural, but as a learner? As a flyer? I looked down at my lap. Look at yourself, I thought. I looked at my shorts. Just look at yourself! Can you honestly say you are the seabird you always thought you were? Or are you actually just a parakeet? Do you travel on the wings of gulls? Or do you chirp?” (75), and here she is feeling isolated from her housemates in the “intentional community” where she lives for some time: “Like there I was, citronella Cinderella, having worked and slaved behind the scenes to get stuff ready, and then I had to stay home from the ball. Except actually I hadn’t done anything for the party except chop vegetables” (136); and here she is berating herself for – years after the trip to the French Frigate Shoals – finally sleeping with Brian the ornithologist: “What had I done? What had I destroyed by spending the night with him? It was like sleeping with your own conscience” (228).
And finally, here’s Sharon later in the novel, considering the Hasidic Jewish community she has become part of and is even considering marrying into: “To [the family she is living with], every little act was going to bring on the Messiah. One by one you took all the jumbled-up pieces and people of the world – then you snapped them together to complete the picture. And that was what I believed too, or so I thought. It’s just that I’d never considered that maybe I was just a puzzle piece myself to slide in place. Just a little bit of foliage. A piece of sky. Nobody wants to be part of the twig on the third tree on the left. You want to be Eve, or the tree or life, or an angel in the picture” (270). This idea more than any other is at the core of this novel: religion never really obliterates the ego. There may be some benefit to being humble and learning to tune out one’s ego on occasion, but the decision to control one’s ego is not impossible unless one’s ego is active and vocal in the first place. The Hasidic community where Sharon has this insight is almost completely communal in nature, yet even here, Sharon detects that each individual takes pride in being part of something great. Their egos aren’t silenced or effaced; they’re just redirected.
This novel surprised me. When I started it, I was prepared to enjoy it because I enjoyed Goodman’s more recent novel The Cookbook Collector a few years ago, but once I had a sense for Sharon’s character and for the voice-heavy narration, I kept waiting to get annoyed and put the book away. It was as if my more thoughtful, analytical side was watching my intuitive, emotional side read the book and kept expecting a frustration and contempt that never arrived. Sharon is annoying the way Holden Caulfield and Huck Finn are sometimes annoying, but the novel is well worth reading, and Allegra Goodman is a writer worth knowing.