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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

THE SCENIC ROUTE

By Binnie Kirshenbaum

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Ecco. 317 pp. Paperback, $13.99

Binnie Kirshenbaum's new novel looks like another year in Provence or another romance baked under the Tuscan sun. It begins with a recession fantasy: A middle-age, divorced woman gets laid off but uses her severance money for a trip to Italy. There, as usually happens, she strikes up a conversation with a handsome millionaire at a cafe and spends the rest of the summer driving around Europe with him, staying in the cutest inns and savoring the finest wines. Given this setup, you'd expect the cover of "The Scenic Route" to show a shirtless steroid-abuser embracing a mildly resistant lingerie model in a ripening vineyard.

But in this case, the opening is something of a bait-and-switch, and the switch is far better than the bait. Sylvia Landsman's tour of Europe turns out to be just a thin frame on which Kirshenbaum hangs several generations of family stories. Florence, Prague and Slovenia whiz by as they take "the scenic route . . . loop-de-loop and fast, as if we were in hot pursuit of a horsefly." Every few days, Sylvia points randomly at the map, and they're off again, but this isn't a travelogue, and we don't hear much about each town. "Once you've seen it, you've seen it," Sylvia shrugs. "We didn't catch sight of much scenery other than déjà vu-type sensations of evergreen trees and garden gnomes." Fortunately, her hunky new companion, Henry, is a good listener, the perfect audience, in fact, for a woman who wants to talk her way across the Continent. If there's a movie version of "The Scenic Route," the actor who plays Henry won't have to memorize more than a page of dialogue.

The hard-to-believe pleasure of this novel depends entirely upon the wit and poignancy of Sylvia's digressive patter -- a Jewish woman's version of Colson Whitehead's recent "Sag Harbor." Her quirky, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic stories flow one after another, anecdotes nested in anecdotes, interrupted by asides and parenthetical observations, and punctuated by historical footnotes about Shalimar perfume, Raisinets or martinis.

I can't imagine what Kirshenbaum told people who asked, "So, what's your novel about?" and yet it's continually engaging, the illusion of artlessness that only the disciplined artist can carry off. We hear of the neighbor girl who accidentally decapitates her own mother, the uncle whose hands wander too far, the friend who decides to get out of debt by borrowing $10,000 for dance lessons at Arthur Murray. Making love to Henry during a lightning storm in Austria reminds Sylvia of Great Aunt Hannah getting shock treatment in New York, which sparks the tale of Luigi Galvani in 18th-century Bologna discovering the electrical nature of frogs' nerves. The Autobahn can't match Sylvia's winding, high-speed narrative, delivered in prose that mimics all the detours and incongruities of the spoken word.

"We were alone, the two of us, in his car, driving through Tuscany; alone, the two of us, in a world of our own design, a world not unlike the desktop biosphere you can buy at Sharper Image. Or a snow dome. Other people? Who were they to us? Other people, they were the stuff of stories to tell; they were the characters who populated our stories."

Much of what Sylvia describes involves herself: the quiet dissolution of her passionless marriage, her dangerous neglect of a close friend. But other stories, drawn from the sepia past, sound more like fables. There's the great-grandfather who invented shampoo and another who left home, "someplace like Fiddler-on-the-Roofville, Poland, with a handful of zlotys in his pocket, and all alone he set sail for America." Aunt Thea dropped out of Vassar during the Depression to marry the son of a wealthy family that kept their lives stagnating for decades. Sylvia's namesake, Aunt Semille, escaped the Holocaust and came to New York with stories meant to obliterate the past rather than preserve it. But that, too, is all part of this thoughtful meditation on the way we construct our lives. Sylvia reminds us that storytellers, like nature, abhor a vacuum. "More often than not," she admits, "we don't know what really happened, and what we say happened is more likely to be a reconstruction of events rather than a restoration. We imagine as much as we remember."

Early in their road trip, Sylvia asks Henry somewhat defensively, "Does there have to be a point to a story?" Clearly, she's speaking for her creator, chair of the graduate writing program at Columbia University. Kirshenbaum wants us to understand that there doesn't have to be a point, but that doesn't mean a story is pointless. Something serious is happening beneath Sylvia's chronic gabbiness. "Like Scheherazade," she says, "we all tell stories as a means of staying alive," and that's a theme this novel returns to in a variety of thoughtful ways.

One of the most touching ones takes place in a New York hospital when a neurologist advises Sylvia to tell her father old family tales as a way of rebuilding his damaged memory. It's a poignant reversal of the way Sylvia began her life, captivated by her father's bedtime stories, even as her mother told them to turn off the light: "Conspirators, my father and I, and he lowered his voice because you can't leave off a story just at the point when, from off in the distance, Little Sylvia hears the howl of the wolves."

Kirshenbaum has endowed her narrator with the raconteur's greatest gift, that sense of imminent revelation that keeps us from wondering, "Are we there yet?" Spiked with wit, scrubbed free of sentimentality, these tales of love and loss, courage and cowardice, transport us back into the pages of our own lives and our own families. "There is cruelty to memory," Sylvia says, "the way there is an ache after a dream." So true, and just the sort of insight that makes this bittersweet novel a perfect companion for summer.

You can follow Charles on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.



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