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'A Town of Empty Rooms,' by Karen E. Bender, a story of familiar struggles but with no real answers

"A TOWN OF EMPTY ROOMS," by Karen E. Bender. Counterpoint Books. 292 pages. $26

Serena and Dan Shine have reached a crisis in their lives and in their marriage, although they do not quite understand what is happening or what it will mean. Serena has just been devastated by the sudden death of her father. He had barely escaped the Nazi death camps 50 years before, but his message to her, repeated over and over since her childhood, was to put her money into valuable things that could be smuggled out of the country if the worst came. As she drifts through the jewelry department of Saks, she finds herself buying treasures she can never afford, preparing for a future she cannot imagine.

It takes her three days to run up a bill of $8,000, and suddenly her Visa card is not honored anymore. She loses her job with Pepsi Cola, and neither she nor Dan can find work in New York. Dan is in public relations, and they send his resume all over the East Coast. The only place that offers a job is an agency in the small town of Waring, N.C. He takes it.

So far, so good. The conflict is a familiar one -- outsiders from the North moving into a small Southern town, facing conflicts over religion and urban vs. small town values. Unfortunately, this aspect of their new lives is not really developed. Dan is having trouble adjusting to his new job and finds himself growing more estranged from his wife, but this could have happened anywhere. He has just lost his older brother and finds it hard to relate to anyone, even his own family.

Feeling lost in this new town, with not even her husband for support, Serena turns to the town's small, struggling synagogue. She is not particularly religious, but she desperately needs someone to talk to. Instead of finding like-minded people, she becomes embroiled in a conflict between the congregation and its somewhat eccentric rabbi. The problems of this small Jewish community gradually become more important to her, although her husband shows no interest.

Instead, in an attempt to get his 5-year-old son some friends, Dan becomes involved with the Boy Scouts. He throws himself into a competition for small car racing, and Zeb wins. The triumph doesn't last. The local Scoutmaster, a lean fanatic named Forrest Sanders, seems sympathetic at first, but cannot stand his son's loss to Zeb Shine. As it happens he lives next door, and after some unpleasantness, he comes over to announce that Zeb was not eligible and will have to give back the prize.

This leads to some harsh and bitter words, which end in another tragedy. In the end, there is no major understanding, but Serena seems to have learned a lesson. I don't entirely understand it, but it does provide the book's title. "It was the great curse on all of us," she says, "the fact that we did not know each other's thoughts. 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 ... making it possible to love someone else."

I finished this book with the feeling that I hadn't quite gotten it. It might help to be Jewish and/or female, but I expect that part of my problem lies in some uncertainties on the part of the author. It is sensitively written, and does explore many aspects of life and love and belonging, but does not really resolve them. At the end there seems hope for her marriage, but they still haven't become part of their community, and the book ends without ever coming to grips with what I expected to be the main reason for writing it.

The author has published a number of novels, and had stories in such magazines as The New Yorker, Story and the Harvard Review. I have not read her before, but as she lives in North Carolina with her husband and two children, one suspects these are conflicts she has been struggling with in her own life. I hope she is finding some answers, although I don't see them in this novel.