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The Reserve


The Reserve

Anyone who has followed the estimable career of Russell Banks
can be forgiven a certain degree of surprise at the apparent detour
represented by his new novel, THE RESERVE. In books like
collected in THE ANGEL ON THE ROOF, he has unsparingly chronicled
the hardscrabble lives of the working poor. Now, he has shifted his
focus dramatically to offer a tale of slowly building suspense and
power that dwells on the casually destructive lives of the wealthy
in Depression-era America.

Set in an upper class resort in the Adirondack Mountains known as
the Tamarack Wilderness Reserve, THE RESERVE begins in 1936 on the
quintessential American holiday: the Fourth of July. A beautiful
and mysterious young woman by the name of Vanessa Cole has joined
her father Carter, an eminent neurosurgeon, her mother Evelyn and a
group of longtime friends at “Rangeview,” the family
“camp” that in fact is a handsome estate on the shore
of the gorgeous Second Tamarack Lake. Her father’s death of a
sudden heart attack that day serves to unhinge Vanessa’s
tenuous connection with reality, unleashing the terrible events
that follow in short order.

The other principal character is Jordan Groves, “a famous
artist…a legendary adventurer and sportsman, a roistering
world traveler with a loving family, leftist politics, and a lot of
money.” He lives in a nearby town with his wife Alicia and
their two sons, on the fringes of the world of privilege and wealth
symbolized by the Coles and at the same time distant from it.
Groves’s politics impel him to despise the faux aristocracy
of which Vanessa is a part, yet he seems to be one of those people
who loves the proletariat in the abstract but has no sympathy for
its real life incarnations. A combat pilot in World War I, he flies
his seaplane over the mountains and lakes in which the novel is
set, to the point where the plane itself almost becomes a character
in the book.

After her father’s death, Vanessa becomes convinced that her
mother plans to rob her of her inheritance by bundling her off to a
clinic in Switzerland, there to be lobotomized (a procedure
developed by her late father) to cure her erratic and
self-destructive behavior permanently. For Vanessa, the world is a
shape-shifting, almost infinitely malleable place: “It was as
if her personal and public past and future were not real, as if her
past could be constantly altered and her future indefinitely
postponed.” Her impulsive act to forestall her mother’s
scheme triggers a cascade of devastating events that eventually
spins out of the control of all the characters.

Meanwhile, Alicia, subconsciously weary of her husband’s
casual and serial infidelities, slips into an affair with Hubert
St. Germain, a stolid native of the area who works as a
“guide” for the Coles and other families at the
Reserve, doing everything from accompanying them on hunting and
fishing trips to chopping wood and performing home repairs. Their
affair begins to unravel when Vanessa inadvertently discovers it.
And when she, Groves and St. Germain witness a terrible accident
involving Evelyn Cole, they’re drawn into a tight circle that
mingles varying degrees of mutual need and mutual contempt.

Banks has lived in the Adirondacks for some 20 years, and he puts
his intimate knowledge of the territory to fine use here. His
description of the lush forests and shimmering lakes, the play of
light and shadow, all ring true. There is a cinematic quality to
his descriptive writing, and with the emotional complexity at the
heart of the novel, it is easy to imagine a Hollywood director
eager to turn this book into a film.

At its root, THE RESERVE is high-quality escapist fare that
doesn’t stretch as far as it might have to illuminate any
profound truths. Still, it’s an engrossing tale of a small
group of troubled characters whose ill-conceived choices enmesh
them in chaos and, ultimately, catastrophe. To a greater or lesser
extent, for all of them, as Banks writes of Vanessa, “the
truth was more a coloration of reality than the organizing
principle of its underlying structure.”

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg ( on January 23, 2011

The Reserve
by Russell Banks

  • Publication Date: February 1, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0061430250
  • ISBN-13: 9780061430251