Serena, Ron Rash

*** ½

serena coverEcco, 2008

0061470856 (ISBN13: 9780061470851)

Set in 1929 North Carolina, Ron Rash’s Serena tells the story of George and Serena Pemberton, newly married timber barons. Threatened by the government’s desire to create a national park on their land and with equal ambition, the Pembertons eliminate anyone and anything standing in their way.

Unlike most women of her time, Serena wears pants, shakes hands, and takes part in her husband’s business. Having come from a background in timber, Serena knows the business and practice better than most men.

Also unlike most women of that or any other time, Serena seems not to care that Pemberton has an illegitimate child with the daughter of one of the local farmers. The same farmer Pemberton kills when he demands Pemberton recognize the child.

The logging team acts like the chorus in a Roman or Greek tragedy, letting the reader know what is going on with Serena and Pemberton, the creation of the national park, what the workers think of the ruthless couple, and how Serena has come to be feared among the men.

Serena doesn’t seem to care what the workers or her husband’s partners think of her. She also doesn’t seem to care about her husband’s illegitimate child, growing up nearby.

However, Serena and Pemberton soon learn that no matter how powerful and ruthless, life doesn’t always go as planned. The realization of this has different effects on Serena and Pemberton, and their reaction to this realization seals both of their fates.

I liked this book, but thought I was going to like it more because it had all the makings of a great story. However, it took me a while to get into the story and even longer to finish. Maybe it was because there was a lack of likeable characters in the novel. Everyone is merciless and selfish.

Some novels get readers to like the unscrupulous main character: Don Juan in José Zorrilla’s El Burlador de Sevilla and his many incarnations, Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s novels, and Alex in A Clockwork Orange, to name only a few.

Even though these characters lack the positive qualities of the conventional hero, readers are attracted to them because the author allows a bit of their humanity and vulnerability to shine through. Tony Soprano’s love for his family and his obsession with the ducks in his pool, Scarlett O’Hara’s having to deal with rejection from a man she loves.

Serena was not this type of character, however, which took away from the book for me. She was utterly despicable and had not one redeeming, humanizing characteristic.

All in all, however, it was an interesting read and a great portrayal of a place and a moment in history.

Go back to Book Reviews