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The Scenic Route

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Overview

Divorced, alone, and unexpectedly unemployed, Sylvia Landsman flees to Italy, where she meets Henry, a wistful, married, middle-aged expatriate. Taking off on a grand tour of Europe bankrolled with his wife's money, Henry and Sylvia follow a circuitous route around the continent—as Sylvia entertains Henry with stories of her peculiar family and her damaged friends, of dead ducks and Alma Mahler. Her narrative is a tapestry of remembrances and regrets...and her secret shame: a small, cowardly sin of omission. Yet ...

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The Scenic Route

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Overview

Divorced, alone, and unexpectedly unemployed, Sylvia Landsman flees to Italy, where she meets Henry, a wistful, married, middle-aged expatriate. Taking off on a grand tour of Europe bankrolled with his wife's money, Henry and Sylvia follow a circuitous route around the continent—as Sylvia entertains Henry with stories of her peculiar family and her damaged friends, of dead ducks and Alma Mahler. Her narrative is a tapestry of remembrances and regrets...and her secret shame: a small, cowardly sin of omission. Yet when the opportunity arises for Sylvia and Henry to do something small but brave, the refrain "if only" returns to haunt her, leaving Sylvia with one more story of love lived and lost.

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Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
…continually engaging, the illusion of artlessness that only the disciplined artist can carry off…Kirshenbaum has endowed her narrator with the raconteur's greatest gift, that sense of imminent revelation that keeps us from wondering, "Are we there yet?" Spiked with wit, scrubbed free of sentimentality, these tales of love and loss, courage and cowardice, transport us back into the pages of our own lives and our own families. "There is cruelty to memory," Sylvia says, "the way there is an ache after a dream." So true, and just the sort of insight that makes this bittersweet novel a perfect companion for summer.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

It takes skill and assurance to pull off this beguiling narrative-by-digression, a love story-cum-family history-cum-confession of sins, and Kirshenbaum (An Almost Perfect Moment) has both in plentiful supply. A romantic affair begins in Fiesole when narrator Sylvia Landsman, an out-of-work, 42-year-old New York divorcée, meets debonair Henry Stafford, a Southern-born expatriate with expensive tastes and a good nose for wine. At the outset, Henry reveals that he is married to a rich woman who permits his lavish expenditures, and yet Sylvia-cynical, wry and imbued with Jewish guilt-dares to hope that Henry will be the man who changes her life. While the lovers enact a contemporary Two for the Road in his green Peugeot, Sylvia entertains Henry with stories about her eccentric family, meanwhile disclosing her own foibles and hang-ups-including some portents about betraying her best friend, Ruby. Sylvia segues from comedic quips to sad aperçus, and from cultural markers to historical vignettes, finally confessing the sin of omission that ended her friendship with Ruby. What's crushing isn't Sylvia's secret-it's how knowledge hasn't made her wiser. There are no happy endings here; instead, Kirshenbaum delivers capital-T truths. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Award-winning author Kirshenbaum (e.g., A Disturbance in One Place) here blends the story of a love affair with one character's recollection of her immediate and ancestral family. While on vacation and with her future plans adrift, Sylvia Landsman-divorced, American, and Jewish-meets Henry, an expatriate living in Europe who also has ample time on his hands. Initial strong mutual attraction prompts these two to begin traveling Europe's back roads together, with Henry at the wheel. During their excursion from town to town and villa to villa, Sylvia relates the story of her life and her family's background. What she reveals is both humorous and at times disturbing. The shifts between past and present can be abrupt and disconcerting, but they become less problematic as the novel progresses. Ultimately, Kirshenbaum seems to be telling us that it is perhaps this filling in of all the gaps, when the future is uncertain, that allows love to grow. Recommended for all academic fiction collections and larger public libraries.
—M. Neville

Kirkus Reviews
Kirshenbaum's distinctive voice transforms a lightly plotted novel into an enchanting, tangent-strewn meditation on memory, love and luck. When Sylvia (a 40-ish, divorced Manhattanite) looses her job, she decides to visit Italy on a lark. In Florence she meets Henry at a cafe, and the two fall into something-maybe love, maybe not-but either way, they hop into his car and go. Henry's heiress wife is off in India with her guru, leaving Henry alone, as he often is. With a taste for expensive drink, good food and fancy hotels, he knows how to show a girl a good time. The two have a map of Europe, time and lots of his wife's money to spend, and so as they drive from one cobblestone village to the next, Sylvia tells Henry stories. Many about her peculiar relatives (mental illness is a distinguishing family feature); about her mother's death and her father's new girlfriend; about Raisinets and the many romances of Alma Schindler; about the broken heart of Aunt Semille; about pet cemeteries and war cemeteries and her not entirely terrible childhood; and finally, repeatedly, about her best friend Ruby, who pops in and out of their ongoing conversation about love and life. The novel's first line foretells the end of the romance, so the narrative is a meandering, slightly sorrowful account of two people in love, but not quite brave enough to come up with a plan for a shared future. Lovely prose and quirky observations carry Kirshenbaum's seventh novel (An Almost Perfect Moment, 2004, etc.). Author appearances in New York City and at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs
MoreMagazine
"[A] moving, bittersweet novel."
Gary Shteyngart
“Binnie Kirshenbaum is a fearlessly unsentimental storyteller, a gifted comic writer and a thoughtful archeologist of family life. The Scenic Route is warm, wise, and very difficult to put down.”
Joyce Carol Oates
“I’m much impressed with Binnie Kirshenbaum’s THE SCENIC ROUTE, an idiosyncratic and totally winning ‘romance,’ in which sentiment and cynicism are poised in a most virtuoso performance.”
Richard Ford
"The Scenic Route is a witty and poignant, and also an extremely interesting and acute, novel. Ms. Kirshenbaum mines a very rich seam that’s entirely her own. This is first-rate writing by a novelist who gracefully defies classification."
Junot Diaz
“Binnie Kirshenbaum is a tremendous talent. Her novels are sexy, intelligent, complex, and provocative; they press against your heart the way old lovers do.”
—Richard Ford
“The Scenic Route is a witty and poignant, and also an extremely interesting and acute, novel. Ms. Kirshenbaum mines a very rich seam that’s entirely her own. This is first-rate writing by a novelist who gracefully defies classification.”
Washington Post: Book World
"Spiked with wit, scrubbed free of sentimentality, these tales of love and loss, courage and cowardice, transport us back into the pages of our own lives and our own families ...[The Scenic Route is] a perfect companion for summer."
Washington Post: Book World
“Spiked with wit, scrubbed free of sentimentality, these tales of love and loss, courage and cowardice, transport us back into the pages of our own lives and our own families ...[The Scenic Route is] a perfect companion for summer.”
Boston Globe
“Life, storytelling, and memory all take us down long and winding roads. Binnie Kirshenbaum deftly explores the intersections of the three in ‘The Scenic Route,’ her bittersweet fifth novel about lost love and friendship.”
Los Angeles Times
“Tremendously readable...miraculously, Kirshenbaum avoids sentimentality.”
More Magazine
“[A] moving, bittersweet novel.”
The Daily Beast
“Binnie Kirshenbaum’s witty, insightful European road novel turns the midlife-crisis-romance genre on its head.”
Time Out New York
“Introspective, mordant and entertaining, The Scenic Route is a road-trip drama that eloquently articulates its characters’ conflicting desires.”
Booklist
“Absurdly underrated Kirshenbaum is at her darkly comic and boldly encompassing best here, diverting us with hairpin-turn humor while slipping us hard truths about memory and inheritance, betrayal and guilt, and the inevitable end of the road.”
The Barnes & Noble Review
Sylvia Landsman, the narrator of Binnie Kirshenbaum's The Scenic Route, announces herself briskly near the beginning of the novel: "There I stood: five feet, six inches tall, forty-two years old, divorced, no children, without -- for all practical purposes -- any family, and now, let go. Unemployed...." What to do? She takes her severance money and heads to Fiesole, where she meets Henry Stafford, an American from North Carolina living in Paris, who explains he is nursing a broken heart. "Birds of a feather," Sylvia thinks. "We had money in our pockets and time on our hands. It was that easy." Except Sylvia, being a Binnie Kirshenbaum creation, knows nothing is ever easy.

In six novels and two story collections, Kirshenbaum has created a series of distinctive, mostly comic heroines. There's sexy poet Lila Mostowitz (Pure Poetry), who writes "smut and filth in terza rima," and biographer Hester Rosenfeld (Hester among the Ruins), whose affair with her German research subject slides along the razor's edge of moral ambiguity. There is the married woman involved in multiple affairs (adultery) while breaking six more of the ten commandments in her novel A Disturbance in One Place. The heroine of An Almost Perfect Moment has, like Kirshenbaum, a gift for the poignant detail. She describes her mom as pushing 239 pounds but beautifully groomed. "Every Thursday, she was at the beauty parlor for her wash and set, forty-five minutes under the dryer, hair teased and sprayed into the bouffant of her youth,the same hairdo she'd had since she was seventeen, only the color had changed from a God-given warm brown to a Lady Clairol deep auburn."

In The Scenic Route (yes, it's a road trip novel), Sylvia and Henry meander by car through the new, boundaryless Europe. At first they drive from Trieste to Venice to Krak?w to Berlin (in a witty reverse spin, Sylvia describes the Kurf?rstendamm as "a broad tree-lined avenue like the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, where my father grew up"). Henry's wealthy wife has gone to India to spend time with her guru, leaving him to focus only on Sylvia and the stories she spins. "Other people, they were the stuff of stories to tell...stories we told each other to entertain ourselves, to explain ourselves, to be." Sylvia shares her store of memories with Henry -- of growing up in Westchester, where the neighborhood bully killed her turtle with a hammer; her hatred for her brother Joel, her mother's death, her father's reunion with a former girlfriend her mother had hated, his later accident and loss of long-term memory.

She also makes numerous leisurely, sometimes tedious Wikipedia-style asides -- on Alma Mahler, "The Most Beautiful Woman in All of Austria"; Pierre-Fran?ois Guerlain, founder of the "perfumer to the stars," whose grandson created Shalimar, her mother's signature perfume; and the Blumenthal brothers, who introduced Raisinets in 1927. In one head-spinning passage, she segues from lovemaking in a forest, interrupted by Norwegian tourists who mistake her cries of passion for calls for help, to the battlefield at Verdun, where her grandfather broke his ankle. He survived the war, but it left him "twisted with disgust, with loathing and contempt for humanity."

The things of life, and how they connect her to others, seem to be the only constant for Sylvia. Insisting that she inherit her grandmother's partial set of china, she notes, "These things that I treasure, they are not things merely owned but things attached to me, each by a thread, and the threads crisscross like cobwebs." When her marriage breaks up amicably after four years, she is surprised her husband doesn't want anything to remember her by. "You keep it," he says. Her time with Henry is marked by a gathering of small gifts -- a Cinzano ashtray, an amber ring from Krak?w, a snow globe, a necklace made of glass beads from Prague that brings to mind stories of her mother's aunt Semille, in whose memory she was named, and her affection for glass beads.

Running in counterpoint to the desultory tension of Sylvia's affair with Henry is the serialized story of her sisterly friendship with Ruby, a southerner with bipolar tendencies who almost dances herself to death (triggering an aside about Arthur Murray, né Moses Teichman, that I could have done without). Ruby is the friend Sylvia turns to when her mother has died and her father is overwhelmed, and someone needs to clear out her things -- "her dresses on hangers, the row of pocketbooks on the top shelf, her shoes poised on racks, toes aimed skyward. Her toothbrush, her hairbrush...." Ruby's manic maxing-out on credit cards and later downward spiral into depression worry Sylvia silly.

Indeed, the evidence is that Sylvia's bond with Ruby is far stronger than her feelings for Henry, who serves mostly as audience, lover, and provider of meals ("fat rolls covered in poppy seeds, yellow pats of butter cut like cookies, raspberry jam, soft boiled eggs...") and rooms in fine hotels and ch?teaux. Indeed, to her chagrin, she realizes at one point that Henry is a man who could be "undone by one night in an unpleasant hotel room."

Before long, Henry has a long phone call from his wife, and the summer's end is in sight. As she winds up her tale of human affinities and foibles, Sylvia Landsman turns out to be a tad bit wiser and more self-aware than upon first meeting. The Scenic Route concludes with a few dramatic hairpin turns, with unexpected betrayals -- and betrayers. Throughout, Kirshenbaum's pacing is superb, her instinct for the heart of the story unerring. --Jane Ciabattari

Jane Ciabattari is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780594002017
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/12/2009
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Binnie Kirshenbaum is the author of An Almost Perfect Moment, On Mermaid Avenue, A Disturbance in One Place, Pure Poetry, Hester Among the Ruins, and History on a Personal Note. She is a professor at Columbia University's School of the Arts, where she is chair of the Graduate Writing Program.

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Customer Reviews

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( 10 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 11 of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2012

    Morgy

    No SHYT

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2012

    Adam

    Woah....that mudt stinkeh.

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    Posted December 1, 2012

    Brittnay

    Hey

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  • Posted May 26, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Jabbing wisdom and prose

    Kirshenbaum, in The Scenic Route, suspends thought with a jagged yet metronomic prose. The meditation is all at once sage and naive, cynical and hopeful, transformative and regressive-a difficult polyphony. And Kirshenbaum: the maestro.

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  • Posted April 25, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    an engaging character study

    Forty-two year old divorced Manhattanite Sylvia Landsman loses her job so she decides to go on a vacation before she walks the pavement looking for work. Sylvia knows she is being foolish as she needs to find a job, but goes off to Italy anyway. In Florence, she meets married American expatriate Henry Stafford in a café; he explains that his wealthy wife is in some remote spot in India visiting her guru.-----------

    Henry and Sylvia travel Europe together in his Peugeot that his wife bought him. A classic New York cynical Jew, Sylvia and Henry pass the drives with her telling him amusing tales about her family as well as her shortfalls including the betrayal of her best friend Ruby that ended their friendship. Sylvia secretly hopes Henry will prove her relationship guru, as she lacks the courage to pursue more than they have right now.----------------------

    THE SCENIC ROUTE is an engaging character study that initially appears to be a series of vignettes, but soon ties into a profound quirky glimpse at two people falling in love, but will either have the courage to take the risky next step. Sylvia is a fascinating protagonist as she explains her failures and that of her family while internally praying Henry will proclaim she is the one; Henry proves a good listener who materialistically has everything but emotionally has little as he prays Sylvia will proclaim he is her one. Fans will appreciate this spin on romance as Binnie Kirshenbaum makes a strong case that it takes a brave soul to open one's heart and as one gets older the courage wanes.---------

    Harriet Klausner

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