Serena by Ron Rash goes into the category of books I’ve read because an upcoming movie release looks interesting but is vague on the story’s details. The little teasers I’ve read sounded like something I’d enjoy but having read the novel the film is based on, I think I’m going to be sitting that one out. The story is solid and the characters are strong, it’s just way more violence and logging than I want to sit through.
Serena Pemberton arrives with her husband in the timber filled mountains of western North Carolina during the Great Depression and quickly establishes herself as a force to be reckoned with, demonstrating her expertise in the business for the work crews and her husband’s skeptical partners. She puts the people around her in their places with a cold and calculated ruthlessness and encourages her husband to do the same, letting nothing stop her from getting what she wants. Some find her unnatural; some simply fear her; some respect her; all quickly learn the price of crossing her.
The entire narrative is third person but it’s broken up in its focus. Every so often there’s a chapter that looks into the life of Rachel Harmon, a seventeen-year-old girl whom Pemberton had a brief affair with before going to Boston where he met and married Serena. On their return home, Rachel is pregnant with Pemberton’s son but they make it immediately clear she will be on her own when it comes to the child. In addition to the glimpses at how Rachel manages, there are a number of instances when the focus shifts to one of the cutting crews that work for the Pembertons. They provide yet another perspective on Serena and the impression she leaves on those around her, specifically men.
Ultimately, Serena is the focus of the novel but always indirectly. The reader, like the characters of the novel, can only guess at what goes through her mind. It’s a stylistic choice and I understand it, but I didn’t find it particularly enjoyable. As a female character acting against social norms, especially for the setting, I would have like to get more of her perspective. Despite the shifting angles and all that they can offer, there is flatness to the character of Serena that I found very disappointing on the page.
I also felt like the novel dragged on a bit. There’s a lot of description dealing with the details of logging that can be tedious, especially if the reader isn’t familiar with the process. I was having flashbacks to senior year of college when my roommate’s boyfriend was obsessed with the television show Ax Men. I was able to remember just enough of it to not get completely lost but it never interested me enough to keep me from occasionally becoming bored. It was a novel that took me twice as long to read as I thought it would.
One of the subjects addressed in the novel is the formation of the national parks in the Appalachians. The politicking behind their formation, the motivations behind it, and the dilemma of kicking out and shutting down logging companies during the Great Depression when jobs were already scarce are all present in the novel. It’s not the focus of the novel though, personally, I found the issues that arose in relation to this subject more interesting than a number of the novel’s other aspects.
Serena wasn’t what I was expecting when I started reading and, in this instance, that wasn’t a good thing. Once I settled in, there were very few surprises in the plot and it just plodded along towards its obvious conclusion. It wasn’t terrible; it just wasn’t a book I enjoyed. There just wasn’t enough else in the novel that I could really latch onto to make it worth it for me. I guess learning that I don’t want to see the movie after all is something.