Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Reserve by Russell Banks

Described by some as a noir novel, The Reserve is a relatively short read that takes place on the eve of World War II in the Adirondacks of New York State. It is part romance, part historical, and part murder mystery. Told in present (1936) and flash forwards, Banks relates a tale of intrigue and relationships.

The novel opens as Vanessa Cole, a beautiful socialite and daughter of Dr. Carter Cole witnesses a sea plane landing on a lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. The pilot, Jordan Groves, is also an artist and is escorted to the doctor's home, "The Reserve," where he examines some works of art. The sensual tension between Vanessa and Jordan is felt immediately although the artist is happily married to Alicia Groves and the father of two sons. One of Cole's servants is Hubert St. Germain, an Adirondack guide, who must work for some of the wealthy who live in the area in order to make ends meet.

Almost immediately in the course of the story a tragedy occurs at The Reserve that has implications for all four of the major characters. Each is affected differently, but in a way that has implications for each of the other protagonists. Groves, based on the artist Rockwell Kent who lived in Ausable, NY, is the pivotal person. His relationship to Vanessa and his wife turns on the task that he is asked to perform. St. Germain witnesses an event that causes him to reflect on his moral fortitude. The novel is also a study in the contrast of classes. Groves is a very left-thinking artist who must rely on the patronage of that wealthy class for his support. He needs to sell paintings to live and it is the wealthy who can afford to buy them. This dichotomy is also illustrated by the plight of Hubert. Another tragedy throws three of the characters into a climax that is as dark as almost any novel can set forth in its pages.

Interspersed between the present day action are chapters printed in italics. In these chapters one gets a glimpse of the Spanish Civil War and a fighter pilot and also a beautiful socialite on a flight of the Hindenburg. For two of the characters, the strife in their life did not end on The Reserve.

From a literary standpoint, The Reserve would not be considered award-worthy. However, it was an entertaining read and kept the reader's interest. There were enough twists and surprises that created an entertaining page-turner and would inspire one to read more of Russell Banks.