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.
Not surprisingly, these impulsive actions swiftly lead to Serena’s professional and personal undoing. “And later, when the security guards showed up at her office, when the lawyers hammered out a deal, when they asked why she had done this, for she had never done it before and did not think she would again, she did not know how to tell them how natural and free it felt, buying up the world with fake money,” writes Bender, “she could not explain how it felt like a final conversation with her father, like a deep and uncontrollable act of love.”
Three months later, Serena and her family are forced to move to small town Waring, N.C., the only place where her husband could land a job. As the narrative unfolds, Bender deftly depicts the marital strains of betrayal, dislocation, and the shades of grief that come with losing loved ones and unexpectedly living in a strange town in the Bible Belt. In their separate searches for belonging, Serena volunteers at a local temple, and Dan enlists their 5-year-old son in a Boy Scout troop, with these attempts at community succeeding and failing in varying degrees.
Bender is at her strongest when she writes about Serena’s grief and isolation as she attempts to find her way. “It struck her how she had been walking through a faint and endless roar her whole life,” writes the author near the end of the novel. “It was as though the world was an enormous, empty room, and everything she heard echoed through this; in this room there was a roar in which she could never hear anything clearly, and in which no one was able to hear her. It was as though everyone wandered through their own empty rooms shouting, and the sounds that they heard were the sounds of everyone’s trying to simply listen to themselves.”
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.