Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Russell Banks: The Reserve

Noir is all about the shadows, but in the terrific 1945 melodrama Leave Her To Heaven, one femme fatale does her dirtiest deeds by the clear light of day. She seduces, manipulates, and murders without the benefit of darkness, and that makes it worse; maybe it's all that blue sky. Not every bad thing that happens in The Reserve happens in the sun, but most of them do, and the northern wilderness setting is far enough away from city streets to produce the same effect. On the surface, a beautiful woman is seducing men to her will, but there's more behind her actions, and without a cloud in the sky, there's no way to pretend otherwise.


Russell Banks' novel opens in 1936, with a meeting between two difficult people: Vanessa Cole, the twice-divorced daughter of the wealthy Dr. Carter Cole, and Jordan Groves, a famous artist who prides himself on his individualism and left-leaning politics. Jordan flies his private plane out to the Coles' summer home on a lake in upstate New York, interrupting their yearly Fourth Of July party to get a look at the doctor's art collection. Vanessa is immediately smitten, but as a married man with a definite set of ethics, Jordan doesn't pursue her. Dr. Cole dies that night, and after the funeral, Vanessa asks Jordan to help spread her father's ashes. Jordan agrees, thinking this will be the end of his involvement, but the doctor's daughter can't leave anything that simply.

Reserve takes place in the area of its title, a private park founded and maintained by the wealthy. It's a far cry from uptown Manhattan, but it's hard to imagine Vanessa being comfortable anywhere. While her actions are familiar, the reasons behind them are complex, and her crimes aren't nearly as unsettling as the ones she suspects were once done to her. She and Jordan are the sort of rich, selfish folks whose eventual downfall seems to have as much to do with dramatic law as hubris. But Banks' vivid prose and engaging pace make their story fresh, and their momentary romance all the more bittersweet. It's a novel of escapism that never loses sight of the high cost of travel.

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