Something a Little Different
Posted by: Ted Balcom
At my most recent book discussion, I tried something new. At the start of the meeting, I asked everyone to take a minute and think about the book (which was Kaaterskill Falls by Allegra Goodman) and prepare to share a brief comment beginning with “What I liked about the book was…” or “What I didn’t like about the book was…”
I was interested to see how many people would choose to say something positive and also, how many would instead offer a negative response. There were 12 group members, and eight of them opted for “What I liked about the book was…” I explained that I felt I was conducting a small psychological experiment to see what people would decide was most important to share, an enthusiastic viewpoint or a disapproving one. One group member laughed and said my effort may not have been entirely successful, since in her opinion, most women are apt to say something nice rather than the reverse if they’re given a choice. Another person said she could have gone either way, since she had mixed feelings about the book, but I was forcing each of them to make a choice.
What I liked about using this device was that it quickly got the group into discussing the book, because all sorts of ideas and opinions were brought forward in the first few minutes of the session. Kaaterskill Falls is not a new book — it was published in 1998, and it was the author’s first novel, after winning critical acclaim for two collections of short stories. The book was nominated for the National Book Award, and everyone in the book group agreed it contained many beautiful descriptions. But we also agreed that it wasn’t completely satisfying as a novel, and we speculated that the author approached it almost as if she were stringing together a group of short stories, and this accounted for its lack of power as a novelistic work.
Set in New York during the year of the Bicentennial (and the year following), the novel focuses on a group of orthodox Jews who cluster together in an upstate community during the summer. The families come to Kaaterskill to escape the heat of the city and to enjoy their specific traditions as a unit of deeply committed followers under the strong influence of their ailing leader, Rav Kirschner. Nothing very dramatic happens, but we do get a very complete set of character portraits, and so we feel we know these people very well by the end of the book. Characterization is obviously one of the author’s strengths, but she also excels at descriptions of setting and ritual. These are the reasons to recommend the book, according to my group.
What didn’t they like about the book? The four group members who chose to go this route were in complete agreement — they wanted something big to happen, and it didn’t. It’s interesting how we’ve come to expect this in the novels we read and talk about. Kaaterskill Falls doesn’t have a central character, or protagonist, that readers can caught up with and relate to strongly. Goodman also makes the mistake of including characters with similar names, such as Isaac and Isaiah, and Rachel and Ruchel. This may be confusing, but it doesn’t completely detract from her story. Some of the group members thought it would be interesting to check out what she has written since this book was published. They suspected she has learned from experience and grown — which is, in a very large sense, what happens to the people in Kaaterskill Falls.