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'Layover' by Lisa Zeidner

A woman runs away from her life in exhilarating ‘Layover’

Sunday, July 18, 1999

By Betsy Kline, Post-Gazette Staff Writer



By Lisa Zeidner

Random House


Women’s fiction seems to have tapped a whole new sub-genre: women on the lam from their own lives. Since Delia Grinstead walked away from home and family in Anne Tyler’s rather disaffected 1995 novel “Ladder of Years,” women in fiction have been fulfilling fantasies to simply drop off the radar of unhappy relationships and start over.

A somewhat happily married British woman literally walks past her husband’s dead body in a recent A.S. Byatt short story and assumes a new life in a tiny French town. At least she didn’t kill him.

But Claire Newbold puts them all to shame with her angst-ridden flight from reality in Lisa Zeidner’s daring new novel, “Layover.” Claire, a hard-working traveling saleswoman for a pharmaceutical/surgical supply company, one day decides that she’d rather not go home, so she extends her “layover” in a series of hotels in her Pennsylvania sales territory, eluding her husband’s worried phone calls and technically failing to “check in” at the hotels.

A seasoned traveler, Claire knows how big hotels work, from the front desk right down to the maids’ cleaning habits, so she’s able to slip into unoccupied rooms and fool hotel staff into thinking she belongs there, spending her time keeping business engagements and slipping off to the hotels’ swimming pools.

With purloined key cards, a laptop computer and nerves of steel, she goes about her business, but her husband can’t trace her. Days become weeks, and Claire continues to elude detection until one day her only credit card is rejected. Has her husband stopped her credit to force her out of hiding? Will hotel security finally catch up with her? Will her home office realize that she’s missed several appointments? These are the least of Claire’s problems.

Zeidner does more than play out a bored woman’s fantasy in this long overdue novel, her first in 10 years. Unlike Delia Grinstead in Tyler’s novel, Claire is dragging around some pretty scary psychological baggage.

Three years ago, her young son was killed in a car accident that he should have survived, snug in his car seat. She and Ken, her surgeon husband, have suffered the loss together, but Ken has moved on while Claire remains mired in it. By her own admission, Claire has become a zombie of sorts, living for her work, but unable to connect with the one person who shares her pain.

Denial sets in when she starts telling stories about an alternate reality in which her son still lives. She tells strangers that he’s off to summer camp/college.

And then Ken informs her he’s had an affair with an old flame because she’s become sexually unresponsive. Claire the zombie becomes Claire the Loon.

Her current “homeless” predicament is not purely revenge, but the culmination of her tortured nonacceptance -- any reality but her own. Claire surprises even herself when she seduces a young pre-med student at the pool of the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia by assuming the identity of a cardiothoracic surgeon -- easy enough since she knows her husband’s specialty well -- and interjects herself into Zachary’s unhappy home -- bitter divorced mom and womanizing lawyer dad.

As her hormones kick in in a sudden surge of out-of-control lust, Claire begins to realize that’s she’s drifted into the danger zone, like a swimmer who suddenly tires in the deep end of the pool. She imagines herself pregnant, dying of cancer, beyond rescue, finally beyond pain and memory.

Zeidner keeps a steady hand on the action, but it isn’t apparent whether she’ll toss Claire a life preserver in time to save herself or her marriage. Brilliantly conceived, “Layover” dares to poke holes in the surface of polite grief and allow an intelligent women free rein of a consuming pain, descending to levels of larceny and lust that are both chilling and, at times, exhilarating to behold.

Hold on to your boarding pass for “Layover” -- you’ll need it for safe passage through a bumpy transit.

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