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© Bella Stander

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Paradise Park
by Allegra Goodman
(Dial Press)

Wall Street Journal
March 16, 2001

by Bella Stander

Self-delusion has rarely been so hilariously and poignantly embodied as in hippy-dippy dharma bum Sharon Spiegelman. As her breathless narrative begins, it's 1974 and the 21-year-old Boston native has just been abandoned in Honolulu by her boyfriend and folk-dancing partner, Gary. Rather than admit she's made a mistake by following an unworthy man to the ends of the earth, Sharon decides to stay in Hawaii. She winds up taking Gary's place on the great mission that initially lured him to "paradise": conducting a census of red-footed boobies on a tiny island way out in the Pacific.

The joke here is that the biggest booby of them all is Sharon, who, for all her awestruck revelations about the Universe, doesn't have a clue about how the world really works. She lies and is filled with righteous indignation when she's found out, such as when, in a brilliantly dreadful letter, she asks her college-dean father for money and he turns her down. (Never mind that they're estranged due to "the house party, the dealing, the thing in the swimming pool, the exposť of you in the student paper.")

As the years flow by, Sharon's voice ages perceptibly, but she doesn't seem to become wiser so much as burned out. Always the booby, her enthusiasm for every religion other than the one she was born to ends in comic disillusionment. Just as it seems that she isn't getting anywhere in her myopic quest for God, Sharon discovers her dormant Yiddishe neshama (Jewish soul). She dives into Judaism with her usual aimless fervor, but a literal knock upside the head forces her to start seeing clearly, with profound -- and profoundly satisfying -- results. As Allegra Goodman endearingly illustrates, it takes hard work and selfless love to achieve redemption.

© 2001 Bella Stander

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