Divorced, mid-40s New Yorker takes off to Italy, meets dashing stranger in small Tuscan village, embarks on whirlwind romance. You’ve already read this book— Under the Tuscan Sun, Summer in Tuscany, A Thousand Days in Tuscany, etc—and you probably don’t want to read it again.
Except Binnie Kirshenbaum’s clever, offbeat novel The Scenic Route is an antidote to all that soft-focus sentiment. This is indeed a woman-has-midlife-crisis-and-finds-romance-in-Italy story, but it is so resolutely unsentimental, even antisentimental, that you won’t be dialing Alitalia anytime soon. Instead of escapist fantasy, narrator Sylvia Landsman offers a reality check, sobering truths about family, regret, loss, history—in fact, she provides commentary on all kinds of subjects. Sylvia is quite the chatterbox. Just about the only thing she doesn’t serve up is a happy ending.
Sylvia’s is an excruciatingly modern condition. “All I ever wanted,” she tells us, “was nothing much I could name other than a vague sense of something else.”
But the point of a good road novel is not the destination, but the getting there. Kirshenbaum, who directs Columbia University’s graduate writing program and has written six other books of fiction, wastes no time transporting Sylvia from New York to Florence, to the shotgun seat in handsome Henry Stafford’s “forest-green Peugeot.” Henry is a kept man, an indolent expatriate with a taste for finer things—all paid for by his wealthy wife. At the moment the wife is off in India meeting with her guru, so Henry and Sylvia are free to run around Europe together spending her money, falling in and out of bed in Florence, Venice, Vienna, Prague, and on and on.
Don’t expect an atmospheric European travelogue. We’re given only brief glimpses of sights, hotels, and roadside landscapes. Most of the novel consists of Sylvia’s enjoyably rambling narrative, a braid of family anecdotes, childhood recollections, and historical non sequiturs—on everything from Shalimar perfume to the Battle of Verdun to Raisinets. We hear about the death of her mother, her father, we hear about her uptight yuppie brother, and her sad, damaged friend Ruby. The novel’s hairpin digressions take some getting used to—but eventually you realize this is how Sylvia accounts for herself.
She’s telling stories to let Henry in on what kind of woman she is: flawed, restless, chronically dissatisfied. Hers is an excruciatingly modern condition, one most of us are familiar with, whether or not we like to admit it. “All I ever wanted,” she tells us, “was nothing much I could name other than a vague sense of something else.”
Free-floating, un-fulfillable desire: This is what propels Sylvia and Henry on their road trip. Meanwhile, we’re treated to wonderfully capacious sentences loaded with world-weary comedy: “People oscillate like floor fans. From the day we are born, we are a surprise party”; “ Fiancé. Now there’s a word kept aloft by the warm air of an empty head.” Kirshenbaum has an effortless, easy command of the language—though she’s most assuredly not a minimalist. Just count the prepositions in this sentence: “Even so, even with the adjustment of the bar for the possibility of a camera’s lack of affection for my great-grandmother, she wasn’t much to look at.”
Still, the novel works in its loose and funny way—and the ending packs an unexpectedly emotional wallop. It’s no spoiler to say Sylvia and Henry won’t make it; Sylvia reveals as much in the novel’s opening lines. What comes as a surprise is how bereft the chattery, clear-eyed Sylvia is when Henry disappears. Left once again to herself, she poses a pair of questions for which there are no good answers: “How do we go on when what was best is behind us? When the longing is not for someone you have not yet met but for someone you knew and lost?”
Taylor Antrim is a critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel, The Headmaster Ritual.