A Town of Empty Roomsby Karen E. Bender
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&/i>/i>
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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.
Praise for A Town of Empty Rooms
“In the very best of fiction, an intimate, spiritual communion momentarily transpires between reader and author. In the case of Bender’s novel, these moments occur during these flawless passages of authentic longing and isolation. Like some of today’s best contemporary realistic authors, Bender skillfully excavates and animates the human fragilities and missteps of life, transporting the reader deeper into the narrative and the interior lives of her characters. Taken together, A Town of Empty Rooms elicits both great pleasure and heartache.” Boston Globe
“Bender’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 Bender offers an absorbing and often touching look at the struggles of an urban middle-class family to adjust to an unfamiliar Americarural, provincial, and homogeneous.” Publishers Weekly
“Bender has created complex characters in a novel that provocatively considers our basic need to connect with other people, and how very fragile those connections can be.” Booklist
"Conversations about love, faith, belonging, and the nature of God rattle and hum throughout Karen Bender’s outstanding new novel, A Town of Empty Rooms. The book itself is a series of conversations, though it is the ones we don’t have, Bender suggests, that matter the most." Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“I read this absorbing book in one sitting. It has everything to make you go on reading conflict, hope, disappointment; displays of confusion, displays of ignorance, displays of foolishness; and, at bottom, an affecting depiction of human isolation.” Edith Pearlman
“Karen Bender’s novel is filled with subtle recognitions. As her exiled characters rebuild their lives, they discover the human heart’s resilient capacity for love. A Town of Empty Rooms does what all terrific novels do: it resonates with the reader long after its covers have been closed. Read the book; you’ll see.” Tom Grimes, author of Mentor: A Memoir
"Bender portrays a marriage in crisis with heartbreaking accuracy." Kirkus
“A Town of Empty Rooms is a gift to anyone who loves real books about real people. It is profound, moving, and so beautifully written as to break your heart. It’s as though Karen Bender is channeling Willa Cather, with a bit of George Orwell. Charming, real, and absolutely necessary.” -Craig Nova, author of The Constant Heart
“Quiet power is something we have too little of in our fiction these days, so I cherished it all the more in Karen Bender’s Town of Empty Rooms. She observes her characters from what you might call a respectful distance, but in a way that penetrates to the psychic muck. She knows that gossip is one of the ways we reveal ourselves. This doesn’t sound like any other book about a Southern small town.” -John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead
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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 Danhow 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 pleasureshe did not want to be anywhere else.
The flaws were already sown, as they are with any union.
Meet the Author
Karen E. Bender is the author of a novel, Like Normal People. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, Ploughshares, Story, Harvard Review, The Iowa Review, and other magazines. Her stories have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, and have won two Pushcart prizes. She has won grants from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and the NEA. She is also co-editor of the anthology Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, and Abortion. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, novelist Robert Anthony Siegel, and their two children, and teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
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