Karen E. Bender’s second accomplished novel, “A Town of Empty Rooms,” snaps into motion when 40-year-old Serena Hirsch charges an expensive bracelet on a company credit card at Manhattan’s Saks Fifth Avenue soon after burying her beloved father. “Customers walked politely through the golden, unearthly light,” writes Bender in the opening scene. “Everything seemed carefully arranged so as to create longing. . . . There was the bustle of salesgirls tenderly applying makeup to customers’ faces; there were the walls thick with leather purses. She walked. Customers leaned over glass cases and gazed at the watches, scarves, jewelry, inside. Serena felt as though her body were walking by all of this, without her.”
Within the space of three days, Serena manages to make multiple purchases at Saks, Tiffany’s, and Bendel’s that amount to $8,000 on the company card. In her short-lived fantasy, Serena had intentions of moving her family — husband, Dan, and two small children — somewhere else (maybe Quebec, Israel, Japan), just as her young father had encouraged his own family to move away from Berlin in 1936 as his relatives were being herded onto trains bound for concentration camps. Her father had always advised Serena to hold onto valuable items that she could sell as a means for spontaneous relocation.