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By Lisa Zeidner
Random House. 272 pp. $24.00
Reviewed by Bella Stander, a contributing editor of Publishers Weekly magazine.

Sunday, July 18, 1999

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Think of all the meanings implicit in "layover": an overnight respite during a journey, sex during same, an end to that sex. Zeidner plumbs all those connotations in this zesty, funny and sweetly touching account of a traveling saleswoman on the lam. As a poet – her collection "Pocket Sundial" won the Brittingham Prize – Zeidner is obviously used to having her words do double (and triple) duty; but even allowing for poetic license, narrator Claire Newbold's name is a little top-heavy with portent. However that's a minor wrinkle in an otherwise sleek and smoothly flowing narrative.

Claire, who is 41, didn't start out intending to be homeless, she confesses. But when she falls asleep after swimming too long in a hotel pool and misses a flight to her next sales call, she discovers that she can stay in hotels without paying and – even more important – without anyone knowing where she is. The trick, which she refines over the course of a month, is to go to a hotel where she regularly stays on her rounds selling "medical equipment so dull, ugly, and without personality that anyone would feel a chasm of churning emptiness open beneath them to have to deal with it on a daily basis." She swims in the pool without checking in and, still wet, gains access to an unoccupied room by using a chambermaid as an unwitting ally. To this gentle reader's regret, even fictively this scam works only in motels in second-tier burgs, for when Claire tries to sneak into the Philadelphia Four Seasons, she's tripped up by its high-tech security system and – her credit card having been reported as stolen by her seemingly vengeful husband, Kenneth, a cardiothoracic surgeon – she has to pony up real cash to get a room.

There is something seductive and exciting about slipping through the cracks of the tightly scheduled workaday world, especially for women, who are supposed to be rule-abiding, accessible and accounted for every hour of the day. But Claire is doing more than just avoiding the automated reminders of quotidian life: faxes, e-mail, voice mail. She's running away from the unbearable pain of losing her small son in an auto accident, her inability to conceive again and Kenneth's one-time affair.

Like so many of us, she begins with the delusion of her own invincibility but in the end comes to acknowledge her fragility and need to be connected to husband, family and the greater world. Along the way – and certainly not in revenge against Kenneth, she insists – Claire has a quick tumble at the Four Seasons with a teenager named Zachary and offers herself as "a present" to his lawyer father. She also checks out publications by the Other Woman's poet-husband, which enables Zeidner to work in some deliciously clumsy poetry and wicked jabs at "Earth Mothery American poetesses and the bearded, bearish Irish poets [who] deserved each other." Cardiothoracic surgeons are "pretty distasteful" too: "Most of them are hunched-over, balding guys, of below-average height, in unflattering glasses." But Zeidner also includes passages of maternal grief and longing so poignant they make one's throat ache.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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