LEAVING BEHIND THE heat and grime of New York, the followers of Rav Elijah Kirshner make the annual exodus from their Washington Heights neighborhood to the quaint Catskills resort town of Kaaterskill. Allegra Goodman's first novel, Kaaterskill Falls, is a window into the nuanced world of these "summer people," a group caught between orthodox Judaism and the allure of modern America.
At the heart of Goodman's sweeping narrative are two middle-aged couples, Elizabeth and Isaac Schulman and Andras and Nina Melish. Though both families move in the same calm, ordered circles, the rhythms of domestic life conceal deeper tensions. Elizabeth's restless ambition runs contrary to her husband's placid orthodoxy. Wrapped as she is in the intricacies of her community, she yearns to "create something in the shimmering, spinning secular world." At the same time, Andras struggles silently through an unhappy marriage to a vapid wife. Both characters feel confined by the boundaries of their faith.
The same strict religious doctrine isolates the Jewish community from the affluent and vaguely threatening gentile inhabitants who have lived in Kaaterskill for centuries. Goodman creates a distinct dichotomy between these "Yankees," who here tend toward flamboyant caricature, and the restrained, prosy "summer people." Kaaterskill Falls suggests that the rigidity of the faith must inevitably alienate the faithful from what is essentially a secular, sensual world. Nevertheless, Goodman steps delicately around the intriguing conflict between spirituality and modernity, choosing instead to expand the scope of the novel to encompass the life of nearly every member of the community.
It's not surprising that Goodman's previous two books were short-story collections (Total Immersion, The Family Markowitz), for though her prose is lucid, Kaaterskill Falls is essentially a string of vignettes. In a disengaged narrative voice, Goodman meanders between Elizabeth, Andras, and a throng of others as they seek to define themselves within the limits of belief and community. And by the end of three summers of slight, wistful epiphanies, Kaaterskill has proven little more than the sum of its parts.