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A Town of Empty Rooms

A Novel

List Price: $16.95

July 15, 2014 | Paperback | 5.5 x 8.7, 352 Pages | ISBN 9781619022744

“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.” —Boston Globe

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. 

KAREN E. BENDER is the author of the novel, Like Normal People. Her fiction has appeared in The New YorkerGranta, ZoetropePloughsharesStoryHarvard ReviewThe Iowa Review, and other magazines. Her stories have been anthologized in Best American Short StoriesBest American Mystery StoriesNew Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, and have won two Pushcart prizes. She has won grants from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and the NEA. She is also co-editor of the anthology Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, and Abortion. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, novelist Robert Anthony Siegel, and their two children, and teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. For more information, visit


“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.” —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.” —Publishers Weekly

“Bender portrays a marriage in crisis with heartbreaking accuracy.” —Kirkus

“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

“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 Honeydew

“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

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 

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