Is it possible to know another person, even one you love, is the question posed in this novel by Bender (Like Normal People, 2000), which dissects a married couple in crisis.
Serena, a 37-year old Manhattan mother of two small children, loses her marketing job and barely escapes criminal charges after acting out her grief over her father’s death with an irrational, irresponsible buying spree on her employer’s credit card. Serena’s husband, Dan, who fell in love with Serena because she seemed to offer the security he lacked during a horrific childhood, doesn’t understand her behavior and no longer trusts her. Serena, drawn to Dan for his sunny optimism and self-assurance, now feels emotionally abandoned by him. She barely registers that Dan is also grieving, albeit more quietly, his long-estranged brother’s death. When Dan gets a job as a publicist for a small North Carolina town, the Shines and their two small children grab the chance to start over. But as culturally sophisticated, nonobservant New York Jews, they quickly find themselves isolated in culturally drab, blaringly Christian Waring, N.C., personified by the Shines’ elderly neighbor Forrest Sanders, head of the local Boy Scout troop. Dan, who always yearned to be a Scout like his older brother, enthusiastically signs up his son and volunteers as Forrest’s helper. Surrounded by Christians, Serena feels her Jewish identity more acutely and gravitates toward the small congregation of Temple Shalom, particularly charismatic but controversial Rabbi Josh Golden; placed on the Temple Board, she finds herself torn between loyalty to Rabbi Josh, for whom she feels genuine gratitude not to mention affection, and increasing evidence that he may be psychologically unfit for his job. Meanwhile, Dan refuses to take seriously Serena’s concern that Forrest’s pride in himself as a good Christian neighbor has turned into threatening hostility. The Shines both want community and intimacy, but can they achieve either together?
While sometimes annoyingly myopic—Waring’s African-Americans are invisible, the white Christians stereotypically one-dimensional—Bender portrays a marriage in crisis with heartbreaking accuracy.