How's this for a challenge? Write a novel about virtual-reality gaming and high-school teaching, and make it a story that adults and kids will find hard to put down. In her new novel, Allegra Goodman creates suspense where you might least expect to find it ... Goodman, as deft a plot engineer as any game designer, makes sure her characters don’t stay trapped behind closed doors. She gives them unusual love travails to navigate. The other troubles they stumble into at home, school, and work also test them in ingenious ways. Goodman, like the best teachers, is intent on watching obsessive fantasies turn into imaginative determination. Readers will be too, pulled along by her protagonists’ quests, which are not to follow rules or slay dragons. The real goal is to face complicated selves.
Goodman, whose fiction often channels Jane Austen's smart, socially astute sense and sensibility, goes a bit mushy over this couple's initial attraction ... As always, Goodman has done her homework and gets a lot right, including enjoyably sharp dialogue and convincing portraits of multiple mindsets and terrains ... Readers who share this view will wish that fewer mind-numbing pages were devoted to gaming — though one can't help but marvel at how Goodman has captured the atmosphere of this virtual fantasy land so effectively in words. To her credit, although her bias clearly lies with literature and real relationships over virtual ones, she conveys some of the technical brilliance, creativity, and, yes, fun of video gaming ... Although the love story driving its plot feels formulaic and the portrait of Arcadia Corporation as Evil Empire is rather black and white, Goodman happily makes room on her novel's pedagogic blackboard for imagination, fantasy, and self-expression — whether visual or verbal — and the importance of forging meaningful relationships that are far more substantial than aeroflakes or chalk dust.
The Chalk Artist offers antidotes to this apparent technological scourge. Nina and Collin enjoy a highly symbolic stroll in Walden Woods and Nina’s classroom efforts go toward awakening her students to the glories of Emily Dickinson. But though there’s undeniable charm in Ms. Goodman’s celebration of nature and poetry, the novel’s moral binary feels superficial. Characterizing video games as little more than digital opiates leaves Aidan’s coming-of-age story frustratingly underdeveloped ... The immersive, collaborative worlds of his role-playing games, with their elements of questing, violence and sexual ideation, form a powerful backdrop to the shocks of adolescence. A novel that appreciated the complexity of these games would tell a darker but more truthful story about growing up in contemporary America. Instead, Ms. Goodman has written a feel-good fantasy about kicking a bad habit with help from the Belle of Amherst.