A Town of Empty Rooms

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Karen E. Bender burst on to the literary scene a decade ago with her luminous first novel, Like Normal People, which garnered remarkable acclaim.

A Town of Empty Rooms presents the story of Serena and Dan Shine, estranged from one another as they separately grieve over the recent loss of Serena’s father and Dan’s older brother. Serena’s actions cause the couple and their two small children to be banished from New York City, and they settle in the only town that will offer Dan ...

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A Town of Empty Rooms

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Karen E. Bender burst on to the literary scene a decade ago with her luminous first novel, Like Normal People, which garnered remarkable acclaim.

A Town of Empty Rooms presents the story of Serena and Dan Shine, estranged from one another as they separately grieve over the recent loss of Serena’s father and Dan’s older brother. Serena’s actions cause the couple and their two small children to be banished from New York City, and they settle in the only town that will offer Dan employment: Waring, North Carolina. There, in the Bible belt of America, Serena becomes enmeshed with the small Jewish congregation in town led by an esoteric rabbi, whose increasingly erratic behavior threatens the future of his flock. Dan and their young son are drawn into the Boy Scouts by their mysterious and vigilant neighbor, who may not have their best intentions at heart. Tensions accrue when matters of faith, identity, community, and family all fall into the crosshairs of contemporary, small-town America. A Town of Empty Rooms presents a fascinating insight into the lengths we will go to discover just where we belong.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
After a dramatic and expensive breakdown in the wake of her father’s death, Serena, the middle-aged mother of two at the center of Bender’s new novel (after Like Normal People), finds it impossible to find work in New York City. Eager for a new start, she and her husband, Dan, “encased in ice” since his brother’s death, move to the only town where he can find a job: Waring, N.C. Desperate for direction in life outside of her foundering marriage, Serena falls in with the local Jewish community under the spell of a charismatic though mercurial rabbi whose complex personality threatens to rend the congregation. Dan, meanwhile, pursues another path to social acceptance by enrolling their son in the local Boy Scouts. As Dan and Serena cope with their sinister neighbor Forrest, as well as with simmering anti-Semitism, they attempt to salvage their marriage and forge a new life in diminished circumstances. While Bender’s social consciousness is at times allowed to take over, she’s a keen observer of marriage and the psychological bonds that tie mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons. The novel excels in stirring the reader’s sympathy and outrage, even if a tendency toward poetic justice tends to weaken the effect. Bender’s first novel in more than 10 years offers an absorbing and often touching look at the struggles of an urban middle-class family to adjust to an unfamiliar America—rural, provincial, and homogenous. Agent: Eric Simonoff, WME Entertainment. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews
Is it possible to know another person, even one you love, is the question posed in this novel by Bender (Like Normal People, 2000), which dissects a married couple in crisis. Serena, a 37-year old Manhattan mother of two small children, loses her marketing job and barely escapes criminal charges after acting out her grief over her father's death with an irrational, irresponsible buying spree on her employer's credit card. Serena's husband, Dan, who fell in love with Serena because she seemed to offer the security he lacked during a horrific childhood, doesn't understand her behavior and no longer trusts her. Serena, drawn to Dan for his sunny optimism and self-assurance, now feels emotionally abandoned by him. She barely registers that Dan is also grieving, albeit more quietly, his long-estranged brother's death. When Dan gets a job as a publicist for a small North Carolina town, the Shines and their two small children grab the chance to start over. But as culturally sophisticated, nonobservant New York Jews, they quickly find themselves isolated in culturally drab, blaringly Christian Waring, N.C., personified by the Shines' elderly neighbor Forrest Sanders, head of the local Boy Scout troop. Dan, who always yearned to be a Scout like his older brother, enthusiastically signs up his son and volunteers as Forrest's helper. Surrounded by Christians, Serena feels her Jewish identity more acutely and gravitates toward the small congregation of Temple Shalom, particularly charismatic but controversial Rabbi Josh Golden; placed on the Temple Board, she finds herself torn between loyalty to Rabbi Josh, for whom she feels genuine gratitude not to mention affection, and increasing evidence that he may be psychologically unfit for his job. Meanwhile, Dan refuses to take seriously Serena's concern that Forrest's pride in himself as a good Christian neighbor has turned into threatening hostility. The Shines both want community and intimacy, but can they achieve either together? While sometimes annoyingly myopic--Waring's African-Americans are invisible, the white Christians stereotypically one-dimensional--Bender portrays a marriage in crisis with heartbreaking accuracy.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781619022744
  • Publisher: Counterpoint Press
  • Publication date: 1/14/2014
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 620,176
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Karen E. Bender is the author of the novel Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms, and her story collection, Refund, is forthcoming from Counterpoint Press. Her short stories have appeared in magazines including The New Yorker, Granta, Narrative, Ploughshares, Zoetrope, and The Harvard Review and anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, New Stories from the South, and won two Pushcart Prizes.
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Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from A Town of Empty Rooms

There is, in finding your beloved, the belief that this person answers a question that resides in you, a question that you did not know has always lived inside you. Dan answered Serena’s question--how can you move through the world while sometimes closing your eyes? She loved in Dan what seemed to be an endless hopefulness. She liked the way he seemed to believe in clichés; he seemed to believe in the goodness of the world when he grew up from a family that wanted to disregard him. It seemed so generous, this eagerness, so fearless in a way. She answered the question for Dan—how can you move through the world while allowing yourself to see everything in other people? He had loved the fact that she could not hide anything about herself and could spend large amounts of time talking about her fears, that she regarded the world with a clarity that he didn’t; he admired that. He had spent his life trying to find people who would not surprise him at all.

After their wedding, they drove, with the cavalier machismo of the newly married, all night to a flimsy, plastic motel by the highway just off the Delaware Memorial Bridge, a place they had chosen just because they were too tired to move. There was such a glorious naiveté in that drive, that rush in their rental car down I-95, by the rattling trucks, by the people hunched over the steering wheels, for the cool pure hope that, by finding each other, they had fled some basic sadness. They spent their marital night at a truck stop, the long, white beams from the headlights sweeping through the plain room, the trod-on blue carpet, the sharp odor of Lysol, the guttural grinding of the engines outside. She looked at him, sitting, naked, against the pine headboard, one knee bent; looking out at the semis lined up in the parking lot, and the headlights fell upon his face so that he looked as though he expected to be swallowed into them, into pure light. She moved toward him, wanting, too, to be brought into his longing. He looked at her, and he wanted to fall into her breasts, her thighs, the way she cupped her chin in her hand and peered into the darkness outside as though waiting to see something else come out of it.
She loved his hope, and he loved her fear. They fell into each other, grateful for each other’s arms and legs and lips and for what they could grab from each other, and they woke to the damp, sour sheets, the pink light of the sun into the shabby room, and she looked at him asleep beside her, and she felt that particular brief melting pleasure—she did not want to be anywhere else.

The flaws were already sown, as they are with any union.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 15, 2013

    okay..enough already!...how many times do we have to stand and s

    okay..enough already!...how many times do we have to stand and stare at the yard, the tree, the building?...this book could have been half its size...introduce the characters, paint the scene, tell the story..let's go home...on and on and on...repetitive feelings, emotions, whiny reasons for why or why not....at least i finished it....gladly!

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