January 4, 2010
Goodman’s novel is a handsomely-constructed story, meeting all of the complex demands of a novel’s craft. Characters are nuanced, settings are evocative, and the strange love-terror-happiness entrapment her protagonists feel for their tight-knit and very conservative Jewish community is well expressed.
The upstate town of Kaaterskill Falls is a painterly setting. Pages turn and the plot unfurls. Yet nothing ever snaps or nips. One cares about the characters; their foibles are endearing and believable. Yet the threads, despite several intriguing arcs, never resolve.
Ambiguity in ending is a reasonable authors’ prerogative. But here it feels like the time-slice of the novel is arbitrary. Goodman’s examination of American Jewish communities in light of upheavals in the mid-1970s is an academically admirable project, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to intrigue for the reader. Snippets of (real) political history seem to invade the quietness of the family-based stories, not enrich them.
And in the end, the sense of quiet-town stagnation feels muggy and oppressive. Not much has changed or resolved, and there is a haze of disappointment, almost. Perhaps Goodman is trying to project a helpless disillusionment on the part of her characters.
A very worthwhile book for learning about elements of conservative Jewish culture; a respectable plot and a carefully-built story, yet, in the end, the very accuracy of the characters Goodman has built–restrained, traditional, averse to conflict–keeps the book from kindling a real spark.