Allegra Goodman's first novel should surpass even the high expectations created by her 1996 bestseller, The Family Markowitz. Set in 1976, Kaaterskill Falls is spun across two years of the lives of several Jewish families in New York. Its measured pace savors the minutiae of daily life credible, compassionate details that transform a story of a particular time, place, and people into something universal.
Every summer, Kaaterskill Falls in upstate New York changes from a quiet, old Yankee community to a chattering, vibrant delicatessan of life. Jewish families of all sects and degrees of religious observance migrate here to escape the heat of the City and relax in the cloistered, comfortable closeness of one another. Given the world of differences between the townies and summer people, conflict is inevitable, but Goodman is refreshingly even-handed about the motivations of each character. She is just as wise about conflicts within the Jewish community: struggles between generations, within marriages, or with the observance of the holy laws are described with compassion and irony. One particular character, Elizabeth Shulman, is grappling with all of the above and is in danger of stumbling into the purgatory between two worlds. A member of the venerable Rabbi Kirshner's strict orthodox congregation, she moves within the confines of her community with ease, acceptance, and a kind of muted joy. Her weekly preparations for the Sabbath meal, for example, are artful and fueled by love. However, the moment Elizabeth tries to reach outside her sphere into the shimmering, spinning secular world, this peace and rhythm are shattered. By trying to create something uniquely hers, she destroys what she already has. Battles between the sacred and the secular run throughout the novel, brushing against or bowling over characters according to the circumstances. Encircling the residents of Kaaterskill Falls are conflicts that encircle all of us: between parent and child; man and woman; personal ambition and uncompromising law; tradition and change; dreams and reality. The trick is whether these themes bind us or make us free.
Goodman's trick is creating characters real and worthy enough to make us care about them. Her all-seeing eye paints an emotional and physical landscape appealingly genuine and equitable. Consider the focus of the seemingly limited landscape allowed to orthodox women: the kitchen. Some see it only as a prison, while others accept this fixed and constant realm as something instinctual, as natural as drawing breath. Eva and Maja, two sisters renowned for their ready hospitality, joyfully prepare cakes, puddings, rugelach, and strudel as a celebration of life. Providing for the nourishment of others provides their own sustenance.
Like these generous sisters, their creator brings together in Kaaterskill Falls many ingredients to feed the mind and nourish the heart.