NATIONAL BESTSELLER • “A richly textured portrait . . . an intimate look at a closed Orthodox community.”—Los Angeles Times Book Review
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST • A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK
It is 1976. And the tiny upstate New York town of Kaaterskill Falls is bustling with summer people in dark coats, fedoras, and long, modest dresses. Living side by side with Yankee year-rounders, they are the disciples of Rav Elijah Kirshner.
Elizabeth Shulman is a restless wife and mother of five daughters; her imagination transcends her cloistered community. Across the street Andras Melish is drawn to Kaaterskill by his adoring older sisters. Comforted, yet crippled by his sisters’ love, he cannot overcome the ambivalence he feels toward his own children and his young wife. At the top of the hill, Rav Kirshner is nearing the end of his life. As he struggles to decide which of his sons should succeed him—the pious but stolid Isaiah or the brilliant but rebellious Jeremy—his followers wrestle with their future and their past.
With this community, Allegra Goodman weaves magic. The nationally bestselling author of The Family Markowitz crafts a tale of family and tradition—one that confirms this author’s place as a virtuoso of her generation.
The quiet wisdom expressed in this novel and the clear lucidity of its prose would make it a remarkable achievement for any writer. What is perhaps most impressive here is that its author (who wrote the praised The Family Markowitz) is only in her early 30s and has already acquired the psychological perceptiveness and philosophic composure of someone of more mature years. The world that Goodman conjures here--a small Orthodox Jewish sect who migrate every summer with their leader, Rav Kirschner, from New York's Washington Heights to the upstate old Dutch community of Kaaterskill--may initially seem exotic and remote to most readers, but the scrupulously rendered background of religious observance is the stage on which Goodman dramatizes the universality of human behavior. Beginning her narrative in July 1976 and ending it two years later, Goodman chronicles the small oscillations in the lives of some two-dozen characters. There are other Jewish summer residents, more secular and of higher social status, whose families came to Kaaterskill before the advent of their more observant brethren. The old Yankee families watch with dismay the gradual loss of their property and the town's identity to these strange interlopers. And there are marginal figures who stand between them, notably an ambitious real estate developer who changed his name from Klein to King and is scorned by both communities. With insight, affection and gentle humor, Goodman builds her narrative with scenes of marital relationships, domestic routines, generational conflict, new love and old scandals. Quiet heartbreak occurs, too. Elizabeth Schulman, the much-admired, calmly devout mother of five daughters, almost enjoys the fulfillment of her ambition to do something special with her life until her business project is forbidden by rabbinical decree and she gains a new understanding of a woman's possibilities and limitations among her people. The dying Rav sees clearly the limitations of Isaiah, the dutiful son who will be his successor, and the brilliance of his prodigal son, Jeremy, who in turn finds that his intellectual rebellion has left him spiritually desolate. On the other hand, Holocaust survivor Andras Melish breaks through his anomie to a peaceful contemplation of his blessings. Goodman conveys her characters' religious convictions with a respectful but slightly skeptical eye. Her tenderly ironic understanding of human needs, ambitions and follies, of the stress between unbending moral laws and turbulent personal aspirations, gives the narrative perspective and balance. In knitting the minutiae of individual lives into the fabric of community, she produces a vibrant story of good people accommodating their spiritual and temporal needs to the realities of contemporary life. She does so with the virtuosic assurance of a prose stylist of the first rank.