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Oct/Nov 2009 Reviews & Interviews

A Road Trip for Sebald Fans

The Scenic Route
Binnie Kirshenbaum.
Harper Collins. 2009. 317 pp.
ISBN 0-06-078474-4.

Review by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! Binnie Kirshenbaum's The Scenic Route was sent my way by a friend in a publishing who suggested I give it a shot in spite of the "women's fiction" pigeonhole Kirshenbaum labors under. The author herself discussed this in a subsequent interview at Bookslut:

The pigeonholing is terribly painful. It makes me crazy and sad, and ashamed, too. I raise this point with every book I do, but there remains this determination to market me as "a women's author," or as it is often phrased, "to appeal to the broadest audience possible." The problem is that the broadest audience possible HATES me, and those who might appreciate what I do don't handily find their way to me. I have, on occasion, said that I wouldn't pick up my own book in a bookstore. People will read up, but they won't read down. My readers either stumble on me by accident or word of mouth, although there have been some astute critics and I am tremendously grateful to them, just as, yes, I am grateful for any reader who gets why I'm trying to do. I just wish they'd tell more of their friends. Someone once said that it was my name, that it is hard to take someone named Binnie Kirshenbaum seriously, which I thought was kind of funny unless it's true, in which case it is cruel. I really don't care about how many books I sell as far as money goes, but of course I want to be read, and read well. Thoughtfully. I mean, we write to communicate something, and all too often it feels as if I'm shouting into the wind. And it makes me doubt myself and think, maybe they are right, and/or I have failed, in every sense. Which is why I am grateful for the good readers I have, and the thoughtful critics because they relieve some of the self-doubt. At least for a little while.

I approached the book with some preconceived notions, both positive as it came recommended from someone I respect and negative as the nearest thing I equated "women's fiction" with was Jacqueline Mitchard and her penchant for sucking the entire life out of her readers in the process of telling a story. That kind of emotional wringer I don't need, thank you very much. So with some slight anticipation and no small amount of trepidation, I opened The Scenic Route. What I found was a great novel, indeed a truly marvelous work written for grown-ups that demands an adult sensibility with notions of regret and wisdom that comes with age. There is nothing here suggesting it is fit for one gender over another but everything—everything—demanding a patient read and fondness for language and pacing and thoughtfulness. In The Scenic Route found a book I loved completely and author whose other work I will seek without hesitation.

Now for the specifics: newly and amicably divorced and recently and suddenly unemployed, Sylvia treats herself to an Italian vacation in an effort to rethink her life and her future. She meets very attractive Henry, they spark and spend the night together and then embark on an ambling drive across Europe, with no real direction or intentions. The drive is funded primarily by Henry's absent wife as he is the object of a convenience marriage that leaves her with her a lot of family money and him with a lot of cash and personal time. The attraction between Henry and Sylvia is serious but not complicated; they both know the realities of their lives and situation. But bit by bit as they drive they reveal themselves and in a most Sebaldian of ways, Kirshenbaum shares personal information and general observations from the two main characters. One perfect example of the seamless way the author floats from present to past, is Sylvia's sharing of family memories, particularly an aunt and uncle who came together with dreams of bohemian wildness in New York and then by circumstance and reticence trapped themselves in a small town existence that gave no shelter and instead prompted narrow-mindedness and drudgery. This not-so-happily-ever-after ending is a tale that Sylvia unfolds along with so many other parts of her life and the world she sees, just as Henry divulges a long missing and nearly forgotten sister and the steps taken to his clichéd playboy lifestyle. Thus in so many small and casual ways, a picture of the present and a potential future is formed until Sylvia poses a final question about all of our "could have beens" and how frequently they are ignored.

Masterful in its execution, riveting in its expertise, on the smallest scale The Scenic Route is the story of a relationship. But as all adults know, who we are together is only part of the equation; it is everyone else we have been, all who live in our past, every moment touched by our hearts in the way of romance or family or friendship that forms the person we can be in any couple. Is it "women's fiction" for Binnie Kirshenbaum to know this essential human truth? Please. What I read was wonderfully written, perfectly balanced literature in The Scenic Route. I choose not to label something that is this good, I simply choose to enjoy it and then read everything else I can find by such a talented author.

 

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