FOR THE COEN Brothers, sporadic classical allusions in O Brother, Where Art Thou? served mostly as smart-boy braggadocio: See what we've read? Allegra Goodman, by contrast, reimagines Odysseus as Sharon Spiegelman, a Jewish vegetarian feminist who wanders from Boston to Hawaii to Jerusalem (not to mention through folk dance, drugs, born-again Christianity, and Buddhism), and back, in quest of some version of God she can commit to. The product is a funny, humane spiritual journey whose sense of humor never detracts from its seriousness.
Sharon confesses to being "not the worthiest person in the world." She also admits to the odd misstep: theft, check-forging, drug-dealing. (Not her fault, she claims: "Dad--this was ironic for an economics professor, but true--he had this serious pathology about money.") Hardly a reliable narrator, Sharon shares what's on her mind, even if in retrospect she admits that maybe such confessions were only half the story: "Somebody else with just a modicum of sense would have up and quit a job selling miniature surfboard key chains....Yet I was not somebody else; I was myself. That was the whole problem." Call her reliably unreliable.
Anyone who has read Goodman's elegantly wry tales of modern Jewry can guess the spiritual latitude of Sharon's Ithaca. Even so, Goodman teases us with the unexpected by endowing her heroine with a skewed wit, a sharp eye, and an inclination never to forgo daily pleasures for eternal ones: "Just because you are on an odyssey, is there something wrong with once in a while having a hot meal?" At her flightiest and most self-absorbed, Sharon remains exasperatingly lovable. We share her refusal to buy into any one set of truths, and her hope that God will eventually "reappear in [her] life."
So does Sharon's skepticism conquer her will to believe? Goodman splits the difference, endorsing homemade theologies that embrace imperfection ("Repression was something I was definitely lacking," Sharon recognizes) and doubt (at an Orthodox retreat, she notes, "Here was the rebbe again, like Chairman Mao, watching from his picture frame"). And Goodman accomplishes all this without slighting our sensual desire to brush the infinite. Sharon's eventual realization that grace finds its way to you when you've stopped looking ("You can't go through life hogging all the epiphanies") has a lovely naturalness. Her creation of a real, if unorthodox, spiritual home feels every bit as satisfying as Odysseus's homecoming after two decades of ceaseless seeking--a blessing, really, that Sharon has more than earned.