In "Kaaterskill Falls," Allegra Goodman has moved away from the sparkling vignettes of her two previous books, "Total Immersion" (1989) and "The Family Markowitz" (1996), to focus on the accumulation of small changes in the lives of three Jewish families over the course of two summers in the Catskills. "Kaaterskill Falls" both re-creates a special place -- a rural Yankee community enlivened once a year by the arrival of the Jewish "summer people" -- and explores different ways of negotiating a Jewish heritage of tradition and loss.
As the novel begins, Isaac Shulman and Andras Melish leave the heat of the city and wind their way into the Catskills until "the city is gone and the world is green." Isaac, his wife, Elizabeth, and their five daughters are followers of Rav Kirshner, the rabbi and charismatic leader of a strict Orthodox community. Elizabeth Shulman, although devout, has, at 34, begun to chafe gently against Kirshner's strictures. Andras Melish is a skeptical immigrant from Budapest, quietly estranged from his young, enthusiastic Argentine wife, who does not understand the allure of the secular, cultured, Eastern European past Andras shares with his older sisters. Forbidding old Rav Kirshner himself is failing in health, cared for with increasing difficulty by his dutiful but unimaginative son Isaiah and Isaiah's loyal wife; Kirshner must decide whether Isaiah or his other son, the brilliant but secular Jeremy, will inherit the leadership of the community.
The reader enters into the variously questioning minds not only of Elizabeth, Andras and the Rav, but also of Isaac, Isaiah, Jeremy, Andras' daughter Renee and the Shulmans' daughter Chani. Although this kaleidoscopic method echoes the diverse viewpoints in "The Family Markowitz," Goodman artfully overlaps her characters' conflicts to ensure that this variety will create an impression of fullness, rather than fragmentation. For example, when Elizabeth's quest for a project of her own brings her up against the absolute authority of the Rav, it is the agnostic Andras who finds the words to help her. Only a late, melodramatic plot development involving an ambitious real estate developer and the local judge seems out of place.
The broad canvas does mute the reader's response to individual characters; we feel interest in many, but allegiance to none. To the extent that Goodman chooses a primary consciousness, it's Elizabeth's; most readers will easily sympathize with her desire for "the quick and subtle negotiations of the outside world." But Goodman refuses to make "Kaaterskill Falls" a story of individual triumph over stifling communal norms. At the novel's end, a minor character summarizes the lasting appeal of Kaaterskill: "We always felt safe here. We thought the summers would last forever. I remember looking up at the falls, and everything rushing and white and beautiful. You looked up there and you felt that you could do anything. That absolutely nothing could ever stop you." Goodman acknowledges the demands and rigidities of the Orthodox world, but "Kaaterskill Falls" celebrates the safety, comfort and quiet beauty of a community bound by tradition.