A Town of Empty Rooms

20 Aug 2012



Karen E. Bender burst on to the literary scene a decade ago with her luminous first novel, Like Normal People, which garnered remarkable acclaim.

A Town of Empty Rooms presents the story of Serena and Dan Shine, estranged from one another as they separately grieve over the recent loss of Serena’s father and Dan’s older brother. Serena’s actions cause the couple and their two small children to be banished from New York City, and they settle in the only town that will offer Dan employment: Waring, North Carolina. There, in the Bible belt of America, Serena becomes enmeshed with the small Jewish congregation in town led by an esoteric rabbi, whose increasingly erratic behavior threatens the future of his flock. Dan and their young son are drawn into the Boy Scouts by their mysterious and vigilant neighbor, who may not have their best intentions at heart. Tensions accrue when matters of faith, identity, community, and family all fall into the crosshairs of contemporary, small-town America. A Town of Empty Rooms presents a fascinating insight into the lengths we will go to discover just where we belong.

“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.” –S. Kirk Walsh, The Boston Globe

“Conversations — about love, faith, belonging, and the nature of God — rattle and hum throughout Karen Bender’s outstanding new novel, “A Town of Empty Rooms.” The book itself is a series of conversations, though it is the ones we don’t have, Bender suggests, that matter the most.” –Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Bender’s a keen observer of marriage and the psychological bonds that tie mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons. The novel excels in stirring the reader’s sympathy and outrage…Bender offers an absorbing and often touching look at the struggles of an urban middle-class family to adjust to an unfamiliar America—rural, provincial and homogeneous.” -Publisher’s Weekly

“A Town of Empty Rooms is a gift to anyone who loves real books about real people. It is profound, moving, and so beautifully written as to break your heart. It’s as though Karen Bender is channeling Willa Cather, with a bit of George Orwell. Charming, real, and absolutely necessary.” —Craig Nova, author of The Constant Heart

Quiet power is something we have too little of in our fiction these days, so I cherished it all the more in Karen Bender’s Town of Empty Rooms. She observes her characters from what you might call a respectful distance, but in a way that penetrates to the psychic muck. She knows that gossip is one of the ways we reveal ourselves. This doesn’t sound like any other book about a Southern small town.” –John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead

I read this absorbing book in one sitting. It has everything to make you go on reading – conflict, hope, disappointment; displays of confusion, displays of ignorance, displays of foolishness —and, at bottom, an affecting depiction of human isolation. -Edith Pearlman, author of Binocular Vision

Karen Bender’s novel is filled with subtle recognitions. As her exiled characters rebuild their lives, they discover the human heart’s resilient capacity for love. A Town of Empty Rooms does what all terrific novels do: it resonates with the reader long after its covers have been closed.  Read the book; you’ll see.” —Tom Grimes, author of Mentor: A Memoir

Is it possible to know another person, even one you love, is the question posed in this novel…..Bender portrays a marriage in crisis with heartbreaking accuracy. –Kirkus Reviews

“Bender has created complex characters in a novel that provocatively considers our basic need to connect with other people, and how very fragile those connections can be. –Booklist

There is a great deal to absorb and consider as one reads this novel. Karen E. Bender has set the bar high here, attempting to depict and explore the souls of individuals and communities. The result is a novel well worth reading.“-Erika Dreifus, “From My Bookshelf” 

“What made this book a joy to read was not only the plot and character development but the writing…this book would be a great discussion piece on the interplay between religion and society as we navigate the personal and public and the place of religious life in our culture at large.” –Pastor William C. Mills, “Walking With God” 

“A Town of Empty Rooms is a novel powerfully infused with psychic pain…one must admire Bender’s commitment to the complexity of mental distress. It’s this complexity, the incommunicability of our pain, that makes us unreachable to one another…this novel conveys the problem; it is also, in its unsentimental sensitivity, a kind of corrective.”  Chatham County Line

And where A Town of Empty Rooms truly succeeds is…in how we, as readers, can observe how invested these characters are in those arguments. Ultimately, each attachment in the book—the rabbi, the scouts, the tree in Serena and Dan’s yard, the jewelry—is a substitute for the death of a loved one and the possible death of a marriage. They also represent a chance for one last conversation, a conversation that’s impossible with the living. What emerges, then, is a novel about the unsaid, the unspeakable, and the ways we talk past the dividing lines between us. -Tikkun magazine




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