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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, May 26, 2001

Book review
Woman seeks purpose on her spiritual journey

By Elaine Masters
Honolulu writer of children's books

"PARADISE PARK" by Allegra Goodman,
Dial Press, hardback, $24.95

Gannett News Service
At first, Sharon Spiegelman fooled me. As I read the beginning of her story in "Paradise Park," written by former Islander and Punahou graduate Allegra Goodman, I thought she was a total flake. Like the stereotypical '70s university student, her main goals are pursuing sex and drugs in about equal measure.

But she evolves.

Sharon is a folk dancer, deserted by her dancing partner in a rundown hotel in Waikiki. She has her guitar, her grandfather's silver pocket watch, two Indian gauze skirts, a macrame bikini and little money. How can she survive? She could go back home to Boston and her hostile father, or she could make it on her own. No contest.

She's resourceful. After a few days, she shakes off her bewilderment and gets a job. She works at Sea Life Park and has long soul-searching

talks with a dolphin named Leilani. She lives in a little hut in Moloka'i, working naked in marijuana plots. She talks her way into a scientific expedition to count red-footed boobies on Tonic Island. She's an opportunist.

She has no purpose, no goal in life, until she "sees God." When a whale opens up a hole in the ocean, she gazes into the abyss and realizes she must pursue God.

On one level, we can read the book as a travelogue. Goodman, through Sharon, imparts an excellent sense of place as we trek deep into the muddy wilds of Moloka'i, attend classes at UH, walk the ancient walls of Jerusalem and live with a family in Brooklyn.

On another level, we explore Sharon's inner spirit. She evolves from a superficial young dancer whose life is to leap on the lawn of MIT to a middle-aged mother at peace with herself and God.

Author Allegra Goodman chronicles a woman's religious experiences in "Paradise Park."

Gannett News Service

Along the way, she makes astute observations. We nod in agreement as she rails against the power professors have over their students and the superficiality of religious groups more interested in regulations than revelations.

Sharon takes us through a whole course in comparative religions. First she attends a Christian church and seems to have an authentic conversion experience, feeling the presence and power of God, but it doesn't last. When she comes down from that emotional high, she thinks she has lost God.

She tries out a commune in Kailua, giving it all her worldly possessions, even her grandfather's watch, and she learns to meditate. But her spunky little inner voice rebels. Why does the monk get to make all the rules? And if he's so enlightened, why does he get angry when she asks questions?

At UH, she embarks on a religion major. She loves the first course taught by a dramatic professor, but the second course is taught by one who regards the content as purely historical. Her inner voice rebels. Why study what Augustine wrote if we don't apply it to our lives? What's the point?

When she flies to Jerusalem, she is enchanted with walking on the ancient walls but less enchanted with her study course: how to keep milk and meat products separate. Where is the magic?

She gives up trying to find God.

Then, back in Honolulu, she discovers a group practicing Hasidic Judaism, the mystical approach she is seeking. When their leaders send her to Washington to live in a Victorian house with a few other women students, she is further enlightened. Dressed in a long-sleeved T-shirt, long skirt, socks and shoes, she forgets her sexuality and concentrates on the steps leading to God. She decides to live there forever. The leaders gently tell her that the group is meant to be training for the world, not a permanent escape.

They send her to live with a Jewish family in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. To her dismay, she finds neither royalty, as "Crown" would suggest, nor heights. She does find Mikhail, a musician from Russia with a unique flair for piano interpretations. At last, here is a soulmate who shares her mysticism and zeal! But rules and customs interfere with their relationship, until finally ... but I won't give away the ending.

Goodman has blessed us with a delightful story told by a remarkable young woman, a "Pilgrim's Progress" of the 20th century.