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.
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Notes on The Reserve, by Russell Banks
Any novel has a dozen origins, some personal and autobiographical, some political or social, some literary, and some discovered along the way. First, the Personal. A few years ago one of my daughters teased me for shutting off the lights whenever I left the room and pointed out that I had been doing it for years, long before it was the ecologically correct thing to do. I can’t bear to let dinner leftovers go out with the garbage when they could make a perfectly good meal tomorrow. I constantly adjust the thermostat--downward. This has nothing to do with my personal economics, as my daughter pointed out, and I’m not known for being especially frugal or tight. So why would I need or want to save a penny here, another there?
That was when I realized that in many ways the economic circumstances of my parents’ youth in the 1930s had a greater influence on me than those of my own youth two decades later. My parents were working people, and their lives were shaped by the Great Depression, well before I was even a gleam in their eyes. My father had to drop out of high school at 16 and go to work as a plumber to help keep the family from losing their home. (They lost it anyway.) My mother went straight from high school to working as a salesgirl in a department store. The spending habits and restrictions and associated fears and anxieties that had been forced upon my parents in the 1930s were mine in the 21st century, passed down like their DNA.
Also, novel writing, for the author as much as for the reader, is a kind of travel--you get to visit a place you’d not otherwise visit and live there for several years. It’s a kind of time-travel as well. For the first time, I wanted to be transported to the 1930s and live there in a small town in an isolated village in the Northeastern United States--a village very like the one where my parents spent their youth. By living in the world of their youth, I thought, I might gain a clearer understanding of the world of my own late middle age. And since the northeastern corner of New York State, the Adirondacks region, where I’ve made my home for twenty years now, so closely resembles northern New England of the 1930s, I saw no reason not to set my novel there. I could do the research without leaving the house.
A further personal source for the novel. For years I have collected signed first editions of books written or illustrated by the artist and engraver Rockwell Kent, a radical leftist who in the 1930s was one of the most successful and famous artists in America. He was also a well-known philanderer and adventurer who traveled to Greenland, Alaska, the Soviet Union, sailed the Straits of Magellan and climbed in the Andes. And he was a paid-in-full member of Manhattan’s café society. A fascinating, larger-than-life character. Of particular interest to me was the inescapable conflict between his politics--radical socialist politics--and his social milieu, a conflict shared by Hemingway and Dos Passos and many other leftist artists and intellectuals of that era. And like many left-leaning artists and intellectuals of today. As it happens Rockwell Kent lived and worked most of his adult life in Ausable Forks, New York, just down the road from my house. His house and studio are still there, and he is a local legend, if not quite a local hero (because of his red-tainted politics). It might be usefully, perhaps even personally, enlightening, I thought, to examine the moral and political implications of the inherent conflict between an artist’s radical politics on the one hand and his social and financial alliance with the very class his politics attack. And how better to do it than by writing a novel centered on a character based loosely on Rockwell Kent?
So now I was committed to setting my novel in the Adirondacks in the 1930s and basing a main character on the flamboyant leftist artist, Rockwell Kent. Meanwhile, after a pair of visits to Cuba and Hemingway’s home there, Fingia Vigia, I had been reading Hemingway again and also reading about his life in Cuba in the 1930s and early -40s and the books he wrote there. I developed a particular interest in his most politically self-conscious novel, To Have and Have Not, written in some ways as a response to the criticism he had been getting from his more ideologically committed colleagues, perhaps especially John Dos Passos. The novel as published is one of Hemingway’s least coherent, but I discovered that it had been severely cut by Maxwell Perkins in order to protect Hemingway (and Scribners) from potential lawsuits by a married woman with whom Hemingway had enjoyed a long and arduous love affair, an affair that had ended badly for all concerned. In the novel she is barely disguised. In reality, she was by all accounts a colorful, mind-numbingly beautiful woman married to a wealthy industrialist, from a socially prominent New York family, brilliant, and emotionally unstable. She became the model for the darkly vengeful wife in one of Hemingway’s most famous stories, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and the distant widow in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro".
So those are the personal and literary origins of The Reserve. There are other, perhaps more circumstantial sources. For years I have been fascinated by the interdependent relationship between the wealthy, old-line WASP visitors to the Adirondacks and the local people who work for them, who cook, clean, and guide for them during their summer visits to their wilderness "camps," which are more like elaborate lodges than rustic camps. I was especially intrigued by the private clubs or reserves established in the late 19th century and still operating today, vast tracts of pristine lakes and streams and forested mountains--privileged set-asides in the middle of a region whose year-round inhabitants live mostly in poverty. There are several such reserves in the Keene Valley area where I live, and I confess, I have an ambivalent view of them, for they do indeed preserve a precious and delicate environment and provide seasonal employment for many of my friends and neighbors who would otherwise be mostly unemployed. But by the same token, they created a rigid, two-tiered class structure, a cosseted upper class and Everyone Else. Which is, of course, reminiscent of the rapidly evolving class structure in America in the early 21st century.
Beyond that, I should mention a few things that I discovered along the way, after I began the novel. There was a lot of local gossip about a half-remembered murder at one of the private reserves, and another story about a mysterious fire, and so on. They got slipped into the novel. Also, I was well aware of the Spanish Civil War looming in the background and its meaning for people like Hemingway, Dos Passos and Rockwell Kent and its renewed meaning for us today in a world rent by civil wars and the rise of new forms of fascism. Then, while researching local events of the summer of 1936, I unexpectedly learned that the doomed German airship, the Hindenburg, had been seen flying over the region en route from Frankfurt, Germany, to New Jersey. The image of that enormous dirigible floating above the Adirondack wilderness captivated me at once. It was, in its time, a "reserve" of another kind, a ghostly metaphor that, as my story unfolded, developed increasing resonance and meaning. Thus, as so often happens, a detail picked up unexpectedly in research became the guiding metaphor for the entire novel.About the Author:
Russell Banks, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is one of America’s most prestigious fiction writers, a past president of the International Parliament of Writers, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work has been translated into twenty languages and has received numerous prizes and awards, including the Common Wealth Award for Literature. He lives in upstate New York and Miami, Florida.
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