Serena by Ron Rash

Passionless…

😦 😦

When George Pemberton arrives home from Boston with his new wife, Serena, there waiting for him at the railway station are Rachel Harmon, pregnant with Pemberton’s child, and Rachel’s father, determined to have retribution for his daughter. But Pemberton has no sense of guilt or responsibility towards Rachel, and Serena makes it crystal clear that she’s even colder and crueller than her husband. As Pemberton and Serena ruthlessly continue to build up the fortune they are making out of the deforestation of North Carolina, Rachel must struggle to survive on next to nothing, and bring up her new son, Jacob, without a father. But that’s the least of her problems – things are going to get worse…

Having previously enjoyed Rash’s The Cove, I was really looking forward to this, and was delighted when several fellow bloggers and commenters decided to read it along with me. That makes me feel even worse about the fact that I thought it was pretty poor – no, let’s be brutally honest, I thought it was downright silly and rather tedious into the bargain. Pemberton and Serena are ridiculous characters, cold, cruel psychopaths who get away with murder again and again, despite the fact that everyone knows they’re doing it. We are expected to believe that nearly all law officers and authorities are corrupt and can be bought for a few hundred dollars – well, maybe. But apparently all businessmen and their wives are also willing to turn a blind eye to murder so long as there’s a profit in it. Yes, I hear you saying, that’s possible too. But, I reply, even when they know that the Pembertons repeatedly bump off their business partners? I know evil capitalists do anything for money, but go into partnership with people who have just murdered their last partners? I have my doubts…

The background plot is more interesting, showing the rapacious destruction of the natural resources of a still young America during the years of the Depression, contrasted against the attempts of some rich philanthropists to protect the land through the creation of National Parks. While those who want to protect the land get the most sympathy, Rash also shows how these philanthropists drove people off their holdings, depriving them of their sole means of scraping a living, in order to build wilderness playgrounds. Since these competing pressures are still very much part of today’s ethical and economic debate, I wished Rash would have concentrated his plot more on that aspect – it felt as if he set the table but didn’t get around to serving the meal.

The workers had plenty of potential to be interesting too, showing the hardships of life in the Depression even for those lucky enough to be in employment. With no legal rights and hordes of unemployed men willing to take their place, we see them unable to take any kind of stand against unscrupulously exploitative employers who show no concern for workers’ safety (although again, even in the Depression I don’t think I’d have stuck in a job under people who murdered their employees rather than simply sacking them like normal evil capitalists). Unfortunately I felt that Rash treated his lower class characters a bit like the rustics in Midsummer’s Night Dream – caricatured figures of fun, eliciting some sympathy from the reader, but mostly there to be laughed at. It took me well over half the book to be able to distinguish one from another because they were so underdeveloped, a problem I had, in fact, with the various businessmen the Pembertons moved amongst too.

Rachel’s story is the one bit that I felt really works. Her hard life and her love for her son and for this land she calls home ring true and provide the only real emotion in the book, and some of the best writing. I’d have liked to have spent more time with her, but the chapters about her are few and far between.

After Widow Jenkins left, Rachel lingered a few more moments on the porch. The sun had fallen behind the mountains now, and the cove seemed to settle deeper into the earth, the way an animal might burrow into leaves to make a nest before it slept. All the while, the thickening shadows made the mountains appear to fold inward. Rachel tried to imagine what living here had been like for her mother, but it was impossible, because what had felt like being shut in to her mother felt like a sheltering to Rachel, as if the mountains were huge hands, hard but gentle hands that cupped around you, protecting and comforting, the way she imagined God’s hands would be. She supposed Widow Jenkins was right, that you had to be born here.

As far as the awful Pembertons go, I suspect Rash was attempting to ‘do’ noir – quite early on I found myself comparing them to the equally psychopathic couple in The Postman Always Rings Twice. This comparison did Rash no favours, however, since it highlighted what I came to think is the real failure of the book, and the reason that it simply doesn’t work. Noir depends on simmering sexuality, hence the femme fatale, but there is no feeling of passion between Pemberton and Serena and she is colder than ice. While I’m not one for excessive sex scenes in books, this book was crying out for a few. Why did these two love each other? It wasn’t shared intellectual pursuits, for sure, and ambition for and love of money isn’t enough, especially since neither character seemed to care about the luxury that wealth can bring, or even its power. So it must have been physical passion and yet Rash was so coy about showing us that it didn’t seem a strong enough motivation. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, the protagonists are overwhelmed by lust, frequently indulging in rough sex, full of mashed lips, bruises and bloody biting – it might be disgusting, but it’s passionate! Here Pemberton and Serena take off their clothes and fold them away neatly in the chifforobe before getting cosily into bed together – not quite the same somehow. Freezing cold where there should have been scorching heat…

Without getting into spoilers, I will simply say that the only thing sillier than the book’s climax was the coda which followed. I laughed, and I’m quite certain that wasn’t the reaction I was supposed to have. A major disappointment – I can only hope anyone else who’s been reading along enjoyed it considerably more than I.

A link to Kelly’s review is below and I’ll add any others as I see them:

Kelly’s review

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

46 thoughts on “Serena by Ron Rash

  1. Initially I found it hard to keep reading Serena, its icy lead characters, grim depiction of the rape of the land and murderous callousness to humans and animals was not the story I wanted to be in. However, as I persevered I did again appreciate Rash’s capacity to write evocatively even though I resisted and resented his sociopathic protagonists. Encountering the dignity and goodness of Rachel, the widow and McDowell was like rejoining the human race after being in the company of predatory malevolence, which other than Pemberton’s passing insight into his wife’s madness, had no subtle lighting of dark shadows and motivations. I do carry away and will remember the images of the devastating toll on the landscape of the (actual) deforestation of that time, the self-serving and greedy motivations of the lumber empire bosses and the exploited and disregarded workers. In the end, I paradoxically am satisfied to have read another example of Rash’s writing but would rather not have met the dreadful Serena.

    Liked by 3 people

    • The goodness found in Rachel, the widow, McDowell, and few of the others were part of what kept it from feeling like a total waste of reading time for me. Rash’s descriptions did bring to life the time and place.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I struggled for the first half and might well have abandoned it if we weren’t all reading it together. I did think the second half was – not exactly better – but certainly more readable, and I enjoyed the Rachel strand a lot, especially the Widow. But I felt he left her story hanging in the end, and that coda was the end of any inclination on my part to be kind to the book! Just silly! I do think he’s great when he writes about the land, and wish he hadn’t felt the need for such a sensational plot – something more realistic would have given him more room to write about the clash between exploitation and protectionism. And as for Serena – good grief, one of the least believable characters I’ve ever come across! Apart from anything else, I couldn’t believe that such a cold, selfish person would even have wanted to have a child, but maybe Rash thinks that all women do, even the evil psychopaths… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • Great review! liked this book much more than you, but I also see your point of view on almost every aspect of this book, especially on Serena being an unbelievable character – well, but, at least she is more believable than Steinbeck’s Cathy from East of Eden? – that one was one big evil wonder 🙂

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        • Hahaha, yes, can you imagine if the two of them had met each other? I wonder who’d have murdered the other first… 😉 There were bits of this I enjoyed – he does write well and Rachel’s story was interesting, but I’m afraid the downsides outweighed the upsides for me. I’d still be happy to read more of him though…

          Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not keen on noir either, but this one made me realise that at least I can admire the skill in well-done noir even if I don’t enjoy it. But when it’s badly done, it’s awful! Definitely not worth a precious TBR slot! 😉

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  2. I can’t say I’m especially tempted to read this, though if the focus had been on Rachel’s story, I think I might have been. Reading about such bloodless characters as Serena and her husband would be too bleak and depressing for me, certainly at the moment. Too bad it was such a disappointment if you enjoyed one of Rash’s other novels.

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    • Yes, if the story had been about Rachel’s life and the clash between the exploiters and the capitalists I might well have been saying it was wonderful – he does write well. But the entirely unnecessary and silly addition of the murdering psychopaths destroyed any credibility and was so badly done! If I read another of his books, I’ll check the blurb and reviews more carefully next time…

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    • I’ve only read one other of his books, The Cove, and I really enjoyed it, so I might be willing to try him again sometime. But next time I’ll check the blurb and reviews more carefully before I jump in! 😉

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  3. Well, I do like a book with a sense of place, FictionFan. And Rachel’s story does sound interesting. But as for the rest? Nope…..checking again….still nope. When characters are nasty (or nice, for the matter of that), I like there to be more of a reason than ‘because s/he’s a cold, cruel person.’ That’s OK for some things, but not as the only motivator. Hmmm…nope, still not tempted. But your review is, as ever, terrific.

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    • Yes, I kept thinking of an actor pestering a director – “But what’s my motivation?” Serena’s motivation was non-existent while Pemberton’s seemed to be purely that he loved Serena, but I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why! Haha, thank you – at least the book annoyed me so much it managed to kick-start my stalled reviewing mojo – maybe I should read a lot of really bad books for a while… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • I saw the ancient version years ago but still haven’t seen the Jack Nicholson version. I meant to watch it after I read the book, but as usual never got around to it…

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    • I think you made the right decision! I might well have abandoned it too if other people hadn’t been reading it, but so far no one seems to be saying it was great – even the ones that are kinder about it than me! 😉

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  4. Gracious! Hard pass here! I’m sorry you had your hopes built up, then dashed by this read, FF. Having never read it myself (with no plans to now), I enjoyed your review — a coda that made you laugh?? Hmm, probably not what the author intended!

    Liked by 1 person

    • No arm twisting from me to get you to read this one, for sure! Haha – the book had already lost all credibility with me and the coda was one of those pointless final twists that some authors seem to feel is needed at the end of every book – but this one wasn’t dramatic, it was just silly! Never mind, at least it’s another one off the TBR… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ahaha… well you were much harder on it than I, but it really was dreadful in places. I, too, found it difficult to keep many of the characters straight in my mind since there was very little development there. Maybe that’s a good thing since it kept me from feeling too much remorse as everyone got killed off!! (that poor widow! 😰)

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    • Haha – if anything I was kinder to it than it deserves! 😉 I did like the storyline about Rachel and the Widow, but he even managed to destroy the credibility of that in the end. It’s such a pity because he is a good writer when he’s writing about the land and how people feel connected to it. But what was he thinking adding in the whole murdering psychopath plot?? Still, it’s been fun seeing what you and Christine thought, and I believe MarinaSofia is reading it too… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • I know – such a hotch-potch and they just didn’t work together. The story about the clash between the exploiters and the protectionists would have been enough, maybe with Rachel’s story in – the psychopaths were really unnecessary! And silly… 😉

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  6. Comprehensively dismantled, FictionFan! Thank you for this public service, I will now avoid this book. You’re so right about noir needing the crackle of passion running through it.
    There was a very poor film adaptation of Serena with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper that is definitely also one to skip!

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    • I’d originally thought I might watch the film after I’d read the book, but since I thought the book was so bad I went off that idea – sounds like I missed a bullet! Yes, I’d never really thought about passion as an essential of noir until I realised that was what was missing here… well, that, and any pretence at credibility… 😉

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  7. Ugh, this sounded like it had such potential. It reminds me of a book I read recently where rich people got away with whatever they wanted and everyone else just…agreed with them? Sure, there are evil people in the world but not everyone!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think that’s my objection to noir in general. Bad things happen in the world, for sure, but so do good things! Only showing the bad is no more realistic than the kind of saccharin story that makes everyone out to be good.

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      • Agreed. When I think of the noir I’ve enjoyed there’s usually an anti-hero type who initially seems bad but is actually good-hearted, or at least more nuanced than these characters!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, that’s my usual experience with noir too. The Postman Always Rings Twice is probably the only pure noir I’ve read with no redeeming features at all, and it was way too dark and dismal for me, Still better than this one though… 😉

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