The Scenic Route by Binnie Kirshenbaum (Harper Perennial, $13.99) is a road trip through Europe and through Sylvia Landsman’s life. It is testament to Kirshenbaum’s skills and insights that an avid traveler finds the latter more interesting.
Landsman, on the surface, fits a type: Jewish, middle-aged, divorced and recently unemployed. Beneath the surface, she is a cacophony of eccentricities whose barbaric yawp only becomes audible when she meets Henry, a fellow traveler, under E. M. Forster-esque conditions in Italy. Henry is the perfect Southern gentleman, travel companion and lover, but for the fact that he is married — trapped of his own volition in a loveless marriage which bankrolls his decadent, Grand Tour lifestyle.
Sylvia hops easily into his bed (and, subsequently, his car) and joins him for months of tooling around the European countryside, with stops in picturesque cities and villages along the way. To pass the time while driving, she tells him stories of her family, her life, and, at the end of the day, herself.
Her anecdotes, charming and amusing, sometimes wander too far off course, but that may be the point. Perhaps this is one of the perils of being, as Kirshenbaum clearly is, clever. At one point Henry ventures, “Pleasure is the finest of pursuits.” Sylvia counters with, “Define pleasure.” Leading us to:
And Henry said, “Right this very minute,” but because of that way that he had, of not always emphasizing one syllable over another, I didn’t know if he meant “right this very minute” was his definition of pleasure, or was he asking did I want his definition of pleasure “right this very minute,” as if maybe I’d put him on the spot, like when someone asks who is your favorite author, and you go blank; or if you want to turn off grandpa’s life support, and you need some time to think that through.
These snarls of thought lead the reader into Sylvia’s mental cul de sacs and chasm-gripping highways. In theory they lead Henry there as well, though the reader of this novel may feel more present than Henry. But that stands to reason: Sylvia cannot understand someone like Henry, who has chosen to opt out of true human feeling and connection. Perhaps she can’t understand because she doesn’t want to. Part of the story she tells involves her once-close friend Ruby, and Sylvia’s omission — one could argue an “opting out” — which led to the fatal collapse of their friendship.
When Henry’s wife finishes her session with her yogi in India early, Henry and Sylvia are faced with a crossroads in their journey. Kirshenbaum has crafted a strikingly poignant conclusion, well worth every meandering path and unexpected detour it takes to get there.
Jordana Horn, a writer and lawyer, is at work on her first novel.