A woman on the verge of a breakdown finds herself sneaking into hotel rooms.

Published June 9, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

There are countless ways to check out of your everyday life, and Claire Newbold comes up with a fascinating one in Lisa Zeidner's compelling new novel, "Layover." Claire is still numb from the death of her young son several years earlier, and her busy, affluent suburban life feels drained of meaning. When her husband confesses a brief affair she's primed to do something drastic. She's on the road a lot anyway for her job selling medical equipment, and she finds herself sneaking into hotel rooms without checking in, crawling into the spaces of the familiar business traveler's routine. "No one would ever suspect me of fraud," she says the first time, "though I know enough about the rhythms of that hotel, the staff's frenzies and downtimes, the secret pockets, to take advantage."

In the netherworld of small-city chain hotels, Claire swims laps, orders from room service, sleeps at odd hours. Hers is an intriguing alienation: Rather than seeing other people as strange and unknowable, she enters a state of heightened awareness in which she can quickly sum up -- and dismiss -- anyone she comes into contact with. "In a flash I could tell who loved their wives, who loved their work. Who had gotten laid, who had just spent huge sums of company money in lieu of getting laid. Who was smart as a fox, who dumb as dirt. Who was lonely, empty, afraid." Zeidner has a keen ear for the wired rhythms of modern life, and she creates a sped-up, fed-up voice for Claire that's also quite poignant. Claire is at once knowing and willing to be unguarded, and we enter her inner world with an easy, exhilarating intimacy.

When Claire is caught at her game in one of her usual hotels, she checks into the Four Seasons in Philadelphia. There, she shifts into an even more provocative mode, nearing a nervous collapse as she sets about reassembling her emotional life. She starts by concocting a hilarious hatchet-job portrayal of her husband's lover and the lover's husband, a poet (Zeidner has published two books of poetry as well as three other novels, and she has some wicked fun with this shadow character, even giving us a couple of his poems for Claire to take apart mercilessly). Perhaps unsurprisingly, her recovery begins in earnest only when she sets out to explore some new sexual territory of her own.

Zeidner has created an exemplary middle-aged heroine, wised up to life's ridiculousness but still, in the end, capable of experiencing its blessings. "My pleasure felt distinctly intelligent," Claire says of one sexual episode, and the line captures something of the experience of reading the novel. "Layover" may lean too hard on some stock components of female loss-and-redemption narratives -- inconsolable grief over the death of a child; the big, strong husband swooping in in the nick of time -- but it never veers toward sentimentality. Instead, Zeidner lets the emotion break through Claire's defenses with a subtle, intelligent throb.

By Maria Russo

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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