Hey God, ready or not, here I come!

Paradise park By Allegra Goodman The Dial Press 36O pp., $24.95

It's too early to pick the happiest book of the year, but Allegra Goodman has set the bar pretty high with "Paradise Park." In fact, this funny story of a woman's spiritual quest is so well designed for book-club discussions that the competition should just sit out for a couple of months.

With Sharon Spiegelman, Goodman has created a Huck Finn for the modern age, drifting down the river of American spirituality. Except her narrator is female. And middle-aged. And Jewish. So stop kvetching and enjoy it already.

Sharon doesn't know she's searching for God until she wakes up alone in a sleazy Hawaiian hotel. The prospect of such a search unsettles her because until that moment, she didn't even believe in God's existence. She just followed her boyfriend from Boston, where they had started the folk dancing scene in the 1970s.

When he abandons her with a hotel bill she can't pay, Sharon knows she should fly back to the mainland, reconcile with her father, and return to school. So, of course, she sells her plane ticket and decides to "hang out in Honolulu and just be an abandoned aimless folk dancer with a broken compass."

But Sharon's compass isn't broken beyond repair. Through all her detours, dead-end jobs, illegal drugs, and loser boyfriends, the magnetic pull of something much larger keeps exercising a subtle influence on her.

This is a woman always ready to be tickled into spiritual ecstacy - whether she's counting birds on a barren island or electroplating roaches for tourists. During a whale watch in the Pacific Ocean, something pushes her even deeper: "The whale's flukes began to lift. Our boat was still. The whole vessel was frail next to her.... I saw something. It was a whale, but not just a whale. It was a vision. It was a vision of God. I was shivering, just in pure terror; just in shock - because all of a sudden I'd seen it - all the power under the world, all this presence and wisdom that wasn't human."

Full of awe at that manifestation, Sharon sets off on a search for God like a bargain shopper at the Mall of America. With an unconscious sense of humor, she's endearing even when she's most self-righteous, throwing herself into one faith after another.

At a Pentecostal service, she's swept up in the millennial spirit. At a New Age retreat, she affirms healthy affirmations. At a Buddhist monastery, she sinks into mystical silence. Every time, she's born again, but it never sticks.

Convinced her faith needs more structure, she begins a university degree in religion, but - surprise! - the professors are more interested in the breadth of her footnotes than the depth of her soul.

With her usual impetuosity, she dashes to Jerusalem and commits herself to an Orthodox life. Of course, this proves a difficult match for a woman who can't maintain her discipline much longer than she can hold her breath. She wants to feel God's presence, but the rabbi demands she study the rules. "I came here for the truth," she yells. "I came here for the truth about the Creator, not home ec!"

Leaving a host of exasperated friends and teachers in her wake, Sharon roars on, full of audacious faith, determined to reach God - to move beyond the temporary high (narcotic or religious), to live a life full of spirituality. "I can glimpse Him for just a moment," she confesses, "and then He's gone."

She knows that "to live in a real paradise, you'd have to have a paradigm shift in your soul," but where can a "transcendental Jew" find the lever to move that world?

Inevitably, "Paradise Park" suffers from some of the problems associated with such a self-absorbed narrator: Sharon can be tediously chatty; other characters are seen only through a glass, vainly; and the plot wanders down too many dead ends.

But what a fun trip - a celebration of the incredible way all things work together for good to them that love God. It's impossible to resist Sharon's delight: "Your soul can be walking along," she says, "and all of a sudden it can ignite!" This is a book full of those divine sparks.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail charlesr@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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