Bestselling Goodman (Kaaterskill Falls, 1998, etc.) takes a bold step forward with this comic novel about a very serious spiritual quest undertaken by a narrator who’s as often obnoxious as endearing.
We meet Sharon Spiegelman in the mid-1970s, in Hawaii, where she and boyfriend Gary have migrated from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to save the Pacific's endangered species. But now he’s taken off, leaving Sharon with a hotel bill she can’t pay and “all these questions and ideas about this higher power.” Over the next 19 years, mostly in Hawaii, Sharon pursues enlightenment in various forms, from joining a Pentecostal church to majoring in religion at the local university, until, about halfway through the story, she begins a slow journey back to the Judaism of her ancestors. None of this stops her from loving unsuitable men or from observing, with an exceedingly sharp eye, those purporting to dish out religious truth. (Of her control-freak Buddhist mentor: “How could you devote your whole life to contemplation . . . and still be such an asshole?”) Sharon is equally aware of her own “fickle soul”; even in her most serious engagement, with the Bialystoker Hasid sect, she’s unable to reconcile the mysticism she loves with regulations that are inimical to her free spirit. Or is she just lazy and undisciplined? For every astute remark, Sharon utters two pieces of post-hippie psychobabble; she’s an admitted liar and (former) drug dealer; and her shamelessly manipulative letters to her estranged father and an unsympathetic professor would be revolting if they weren’t so laughably ineffective. In short, Sharon is a wonderfully complex, utterly believable character, and Goodman softens none of her unattractive qualities. Yet she’s also truly, passionately seeking God, and she comes to a form of traditional-yet-customized Judaism that seems just right for her.
Brilliantly crafted and pitched perfectly, which we expect from this author; but also challenging and deliberately uningratiating, which we might not.