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The Reserve: A Novelby Russell Banks
"For all the care of its construction and clear beauty of its descriptive prose, The Reserve has a curiously cold-blooded and stagy quality, as if it were worked up from its multiple historical sources and abstract themes rather than allowed to grow from the exfoliating revelations of character." Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Review of Books (read the entire New York Review of Books review)
Synopses & Reviews
Part love story, part murder mystery, set on the cusp of the Second World War, Russell Banks's sharp-witted and deeply engaging new novel raises dangerous questions about class, politics, art, love, and madness — and explores what happens when two powerful personalities, trapped at opposite ends of a social divide, begin to break the rules.
Twenty-nine-year-old Vanessa Cole is a wild, stunningly beautiful heiress, the adopted only child of a highly regarded New York brain surgeon and his socialite wife. Twice married, Vanessa has been scandalously linked to any number of rich and famous men. But on the night of July 4, 1936, at her parents' country home in a remote Adirondack Mountain enclave known as The Reserve, two events coincide to permanently alter the course of Vanessa's callow life: her father dies suddenly of a heart attack, and a mysteriously seductive local artist, Jordan Groves, blithely lands his Waco biplane in the pristine waters of the forbidden Upper Lake...
Jordan's reputation has preceded him; he is internationally known as much for his exploits and conquests as for his paintings themselves, and, here in the midst of the Great Depression, his leftist loyalties seem suspiciously undercut by his wealth and elite clientele. But for all his worldly swagger, Jordan is as staggered by Vanessa's beauty and charm as she is by his defiant independence. He falls easy prey to her electrifying personality, but it is not long before he discovers that the heiress carries a dark, deeply scarring family secret. Emotionally unstable from the start, and further unhinged by her father's unexpected death, Vanessa begins to spin wildly out of control, manipulating and destroying the lives of all who cross her path.
Moving from the secluded beauty of the Adirondack wilderness to the skies above war-torn Spain and Fascist Germany, The Reserve is a clever, incisive, and passionately romantic novel of suspense that adds a new dimension to this acclaimed author's extraordinary repertoire.
"Signature Reviewed by Scott Turow Like Banks's two most recent novels — Cloudsplitter, a 1998 book about the abolitionist John Brown, and The Darling, about the wages of '60s radicalism — The Reserve looks backward, this time to the 1930s. The reserve of the title is an Adirondack preserve, a membership-only sanctuary where the very rich partake of woodland leisure, hunting, fishing, dining, drinking, utterly remote from the anxiety and want that most Americans experienced in 1936. Jordan Groves, a noted artist and illustrator, makes his life literally and figuratively at the border of the property, along with his wife, Alicia, and two sons, Bear and Wolf. In a note that accompanies the advance reader's copy of the book, Banks says he was drawn back imaginatively to the world of his parents. But this novel is not merely an homage to the class-riven universe of the Depression but also to the way it was portrayed in its own time. Some plot elements nod in the direction of Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night. Much more clearly, the ghost of Ernest Hemingway, who is even an offstage character, treads the pages of The Reserve and leaves his tracks. Banks acknowledges that Jordan Groves is loosely based on the real-life Adirondacks artist, Rockwell Kent, but Groves, as Banks creates him, is a man in the Hemingway mold, whose first name seems to acknowledge Hemingway's quintessential hero, Robert Jordan in For Whom The Bell Tolls. Jordan Groves is a man's man, flying his airplane daringly around the Adirondacks and trekking the world in search of imagery and lovers. As is true of all the characters in this novel — and in Hemingway's — Groves is a person utterly without any sense of irony about himself, and thus any awareness of the degree to which he is a creature of what he claims to despise. Groves's unrecognized conflicts are forced into consciousness through the agency of Vanessa Cole, the twice-divorced adopted daughter of one of the Reserve's member families. Free of her last husband, a European nobleman whom she calls in her own mind Count No-Count, Vanessa is an alluring and determined seductress who sets her sights on Groves in the book's initial chapter. Death, adultery and homicide follow, shattering each of the would-be lovers' families. This is a vividly imagined book. It has the romantic atmosphere of those great 1930s tales in film and prose, and it speeds the reader along from its first pages. In fact, Banks talents are so large — and the novel so fundamentally engaging — that it continued to pull me in even when, in its climactic moments, I could no longer comprehend why the characters were doing what they were doing. By then, the denouement has been determined largely by the literary expectations of a bygone era where character flaws require a tragic end. Despite that, The Reserve is a pleasure well worth savoring. Scott Turow is at work on a sequel to Presumed Innocent." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Russell Banks is turning down the heat. His most recent novels — released to wide critical and popular acclaim — were fiery tales of revolution: 'Cloudsplitter' (1998) told the explosive story of abolition terrorist John Brown, and 'The Darling' (2004) raced us through the sprawling horrors of Liberia's modern-day civil war. But with 'The Reserve' Banks has narrowed his scope dramatically, returning... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) to the smaller scale of his earlier fiction, even the compressed time frame of his fine short stories. The title refers to a private sanctuary in the Adirondacks, a pristine wilderness maintained by a few families so wealthy that the deprivations of the Depression do not affect them at all. Banks provides a sobering description of the sad economic conditions that developed during this time and still prevail in such resort locales. A staff of servants and caretakers live like medieval serfs on the 40,000-acre Reserve, abiding by regulations set down by the summer people to maintain the area's idyllic atmosphere. 'They were allowed onto the Reserve and club grounds,' Banks writes, 'but only to work, and not to fish or hunt or hike on their own. ... The illusion of wilderness was as important to maintain as the reality.' That tension between illusion and reality is what interests Banks most here. This is primarily a novel about right and wrong, and how class and sex cloud that distinction. He focuses on a man who moves confidently among the haves and the have-nots: Jordan Groves, a left-wing artist who sells his pictures to wealthy collectors, seduces their wives, and pals around with their servants. He's loosely based on Rockwell Kent, the celebrated illustrator and labor advocate who donated a number of his works to the Soviet Union, ran afoul of Sen. McCarthy and eventually appeared on a U.S. postage stamp. But Jordan is entirely Banks' own invention; 'The Reserve' alludes to historical events, but it isn't built on them the way 'Cloudsplitter' and 'The Darling' are. Instead, Banks has created a small collection of characters from different levels of society and then brought them together for a disastrous encounter in this pastoral setting during the summer of 1936. The novel opens when Jordan flies his plane to the wilderness palace of a wealthy collector, Dr. Cole, 'an internationally renowned, if somewhat controversial, brain surgeon.' Dr. Cole's only daughter is a scandalous beauty named Vanessa, 30 years old, already twice divorced. 'She was rumored to have had affairs with Ernest Hemingway and Max Ernst and Baron von Blixen,' but Jordan's not interested: 'Plutocrats,' he decides at once. 'Leisure-class Republicans. People with inherited wealth and no real education and, except for the doctor, no useful skills.' He recognizes Vanessa from the pages of Vanity Fair, but to him 'the woman was nothing more than a socialite ... a parasite.' Nonetheless, when she bends down close to his face and whispers, 'I won't be happy until you take me for a ride in your airplane,' he immediately agrees, a decision that entangles him far more than he realizes. After Dr. Cole dies from a heart attack later that night, Vanessa appeals to Jordan to give her another ride in his plane so that she can spread her father's ashes over the lake. It's a violation of the Reserve's rules, but such an innocent, harmless one that, again, Jordan can't resist. Unfortunately, Vanessa is plotting something much more forbidden than spreading her father's ashes — or sleeping with Jordan Groves, who's married with two boys. Behind her celebrated beauty is the dangerous and unbalanced character of a woman frightened into moral idiocy: 'The truth was somewhat transient and changeable' for Vanessa, 'one minute here, the next gone. It was something one could assert and a moment later turn around and deny, with no sense of there being any contradiction. Merely a correction.' That expedient attitude is completely alien to Hubert St. Germain, a proud woodsman who also gets dragged into Vanessa's deadly plot. He considers himself a throwback 'to men of an earlier era, when the region had not yet been settled by white people — solitary, self-sufficient hunters and trappers and woodsmen who thought of themselves as living off the land, regardless of who owned title to it.' Now, of course, those days are gone. Once a man of 'calm good sense and moral clarity,' he too falls into a quagmire, 'where he could no longer choose between right and wrong.' But how different that challenge appears to someone who has no money, no options, no escape from his own sins. Banks is a genius at showing people slipping into crises that scramble their moral reason, but this story depends on several startling revelations that alter everything we thought we knew about these characters. In some ways, 'The Reserve' is a romantic thriller laboring away in the heavy costume of social realism. It vacillates oddly between aha moments and long passages of subtle analysis. And the novel's complicated political and aesthetic concerns are too quickly upstaged by romantic angst and bedroom shenanigans: e.g., 'They made stormy love the entire rest of the night, until dawn broke.' Sure. The scandal that develops is periodically gripping, but what doesn't work is a series of italicized, intercalary chapters that show glimpses of Jordan and Vanessa in the future, serving in the war in Europe. At first, these episodes are so brief and elliptical that they convey no meaning at all, and even when they eventually do come into some focus, they remain unresolved. They're one more incongruous element in this alternately engaging and frustrating novel. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World. Send e-mail to charlesr(at symbol)washpost.com." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"The plot gets off to a slow start, but the breathtaking scenic descriptions create a setting central to the story. As the chain of events builds to an inevitable and tragic conclusion, we are left with the feeling that no one, not even the well-to-do, can escape the laws of nature. Recommended." Library Journal
"Banks is one of America's finest novelists, but this oddly distanced work lacks the passionate personal engagement of a masterpiece like Continental Drift (1985) or the bracing historical revisionism of Cloudsplitter (1998)." Kirkus Reviews
"Banks' gorgeous, vivid prose feels wasted on mostly limpid characters....This ultimately reads like a fascinating setup for a grand, passionate novel that, sadly, just isn't there." Booklist
"[A] riveting narrative, featuring an almost pot-boiling love story set against a backdrop of global unrest and clearly demarcated class tensions." Los Angeles Times
"[An] illuminating psychological novel of subverted love and family dysfunction, and a powerful commentary on class structure in America." Boston Globe
"Banks fulfills Hemingway's dictum that a good book is one that offers plenty for critics to admire while at the same time provides a story that engrosses ordinary readers." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"This is a deeply moving novel, part mystery, part romance, and part social commentary. Words flow like liquid silk." Providence Journal
"Banks has written a novel in which almost all the constituent aspects are larger than life." New York Times
About the Author
Russell Banks is the founding president of Cities of Refuge North America and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His work has been translated into twenty languages and has received numerous international prizes and awards. He lives in upstate New York and is the New York State Author.
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