28 June 2009

Long way round.

N.B.: I am not particularly happy with this review. It is maddeningly nonspecific, whereas the novel is awash in detail; it's impressionistic, where the book is sharply defined. It's also heartwrenching without being the least bit manipulative. I don't know how she pulls that off.

The Scenic Route: A Novel (P.S.) The Scenic Route: A Novel by Binnie Kirshenbaum

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’m glad I finished this novel over a lunch break at work; else, I would have had to curl up someplace and bawl for a while. From the very beginning, The Scenic Route is about endings.

Sylvia Landsman, fortyish, divorced, childless, having been laid off from a job she didn’t care about, decides to go to Florence. There, she meets Henry, an expatriate whose marriage of convenience provides him with means and opportunity for a life of utter frivolity and leisure. Together, they set off on an aimless, luxurious jaunt through Europe, somehow outside of time and space, though conducted in five-star hotels and beholden to a deadline: eventually, Henry’s wife will return from her travels, to him, and he to her.

On long drives through landscapes, Sylvia tells Henry stories, rich expanses of unimportant detail, stretching back generations, while avoiding the uneasy climax of her most important story—the betrayal by omission of her best friend. But as she says, stories only have happy endings if you end them too soon, and the choices we make, though in many ways inevitable, are still our responsibility.

And all that makes the novel sound dark, doesn’t it? It’s not, though there’s plenty of grief to go around. Kirshenbaum’s facility with language locates beauty and humor everywhere, and the novel duplicates the process of getting to know someone so well that we’re ready to forgive Sylvia her cowardice, because it’s so like our own. “The Scenic Route” is that wonderful mix of wry, witty, and unutterably tragic—you know, like life. Where the destination’s known, but there are so many ways to get there.

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