Author Karen Bender weaves a number of provocative themes into this emotional and timely story set in a small community in North Carolina.
Dan and Serena, newly relocated from New York City to a small southern town, face a daunting transition. Moving from the city in shame, with a lot of literal and figurative baggage, two small children, and one new job, they must find their way as Jews, whether intended or not, in a traditional southern Christian community.
Within a short time both Dan and Serena begin to identify comfort zones. Dan befriends their next door neighbor, the Boy Scout leader of generations of scouting families. Dan is immediately stirred with romantic memories of scouting and is happy to belong, get involved, and bring his young son into this world.
Serena, by chance, finds her way to the only Jewish congregation, a small synagogue of fewer than one hundred members, and a charismatic rabbi. Not only does she get a job there, but is immediately recruited to the Board, and therefore immersed in all the issues of small congregations.
While this might fit snuggly into the Southern/Jewish genre of novels, with all its history and cultural difficulties, there is more. We consider the Jewish community’s source of survival everywhere through member affiliation. We are drawn with compassion, and sometimes anger, into the needs and yearnings of all the well-drawn characters. People, no matter what their politics or beliefs, or in this case, the state of their marriage, need to belong, to connect, to share grief and to know love.
Serena realizes, “Everyone lived in the empty rooms of their own longing, wrangling with their own versions of love and grief; sometimes, if they were lucky, they stepped out of their rooms to meet another person, to try, for a moment, to live in the precious rooms of another.”