Saturday, March 16, 2013

Book Review: "A Town of Empty Rooms" by Karen E. Bender

Serena and Dan Shine are both struggling. Serena suffers a breakdown of sorts following the death of her beloved, larger-than-life father, while Dan is struggling with the death of his older brother. When Serena's actions force them to leave New York and head to Waring, North Carolina, the only place where Dan can find a job, their marriage is challenged as both of them face similar yet different emotions.

Deep in the heart of the Bible Belt, Serena tries to find ways to fit in and feel like she has a purpose, so she becomes active in a small synagogue in town. She is taken with the congregation's magnetic rabbi, who serves as a spiritual and emotional guidepost for her, although his own erratic behavior threatens his relationships with his congregants and his future. Dan, who feels betrayed by Serena's actions and desperate to reclaim some stability in his life, becomes somewhat obsessed with his involvement as a Cub Scout leader for their young son, Zeb.

Both Dan and Serena have encounters with their volatile next door neighbor, Forrest, who rules the neighborhood with threats and unstable actions. Forrest is the scout leader who wants everything his way and doesn't care what stands in his way—ethics, religious freedom, or plain decency. And they quickly find out what happens when you challenge him, which leaves them both questioning their decision to stay in Waring and their faith in each other.

Above all, this is a book about a marriage in turmoil, of struggling to find one's place, and coming to terms with loss. "Everyone lived in the empty rooms of their own longing, wrangling with their own versions of love and grief; sometimes, if they were lucky, they stepped out of their rooms to meet another person, to try, for a moment, to live in the precious room of another."

Karen Bender is a really strong writer, and I enjoyed the depth and complexity she brought to some of her characters, especially Dan, Serena, and Rabbi Golden. I also thought she did a great job exploring the simmering anti-Semitism that still exists in small towns, and how it comes out in seemingly innocent ways. I was frustrated, even irritated at times by Forrest's character and the situations he was involved in; I felt as if the book was on the verge of teetering into territory in which it didn't belong, and I was glad that Bender pulled back from that.

In the end, this is a good, compelling story, although sometimes a little uneven, brought to a higher level thanks to Karen Bender's writing ability.

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