A Town of Emp­ty Rooms: A Novel

Karen E. Bender
  • Review
By – August 30, 2013

Author Karen Ben­der weaves a num­ber of provoca­tive themes into this emo­tion­al and time­ly sto­ry set in a small com­mu­ni­ty in North Carolina.

Dan and Ser­e­na, new­ly relo­cat­ed from New York City to a small south­ern town, face a daunt­ing tran­si­tion. Mov­ing from the city in shame, with a lot of lit­er­al and fig­u­ra­tive bag­gage, two small chil­dren, and one new job, they must find their way as Jews, whether intend­ed or not, in a tra­di­tion­al south­ern Chris­t­ian community. 

With­in a short time both Dan and Ser­e­na begin to iden­ti­fy com­fort zones. Dan befriends their next door neigh­bor, the Boy Scout leader of gen­er­a­tions of scout­ing fam­i­lies. Dan is imme­di­ate­ly stirred with roman­tic mem­o­ries of scout­ing and is hap­py to belong, get involved, and bring his young son into this world.

Ser­e­na, by chance, finds her way to the only Jew­ish con­gre­ga­tion, a small syn­a­gogue of few­er than one hun­dred mem­bers, and a charis­mat­ic rab­bi. Not only does she get a job there, but is imme­di­ate­ly recruit­ed to the Board, and there­fore immersed in all the issues of small congregations.

While this might fit snug­gly into the Southern/​Jewish genre of nov­els, with all its his­to­ry and cul­tur­al dif­fi­cul­ties, there is more. We con­sid­er the Jew­ish community’s source of sur­vival every­where through mem­ber affil­i­a­tion. We are drawn with com­pas­sion, and some­times anger, into the needs and yearn­ings of all the well-drawn char­ac­ters. Peo­ple, no mat­ter what their pol­i­tics or beliefs, or in this case, the state of their mar­riage, need to belong, to con­nect, to share grief and to know love. 

Ser­e­na real­izes, 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 rooms of another.”

Pen­ny Metsch, MLS, for­mer­ly a school librar­i­an on Long Island and in New York City, now focus­es on ear­ly lit­er­a­cy pro­grams in Hobo­ken, NJ.

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