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Serena: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 7, 2008

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Hardcover, Deckle Edge, October 7, 2008
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Editorial Reviews Review

The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains--but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattle-snakes, even saving her husband's life in the wilderness. Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons' intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning.

Rash's masterful balance of violence and beauty yields a riveting novel that, at its core, tells of love both honored and betrayed.

The Gift of Silence: An Essay by Ron Rash

When readers ask how I came to be a writer, I usually mention several influences: my parents’ teaching by example the importance of reading; a grandfather who, though illiterate, was a wonderful storyteller; and, as I grew older, an awareness that my region had produced an inordinate number of excellent writers and that I might find a place in that tradition. Nevertheless, I believe what most made me a writer was my early difficulty with language.

My mother tells me that certain words were impossible for me to pronounce, especially those with j’s and g’s. Those hard consonants were like tripwires in my mouth, causing me to stumble over words such as “jungle” and “generous.” My parents hoped I would grow out of this problem, but by the time I was five, I’d made no improvement. There was no speech therapist in the county, but one did drive in from the closest city once a week.

That once a week was a Saturday morning at the local high school. For an hour the therapist worked with me. I don’t remember much of what we did in those sessions, except that several times she held my hands to her face as she pronounced a word. I do remember how large and empty the classroom seemed with just the two of us in it, and how small I felt sitting in a desk made for teenagers.

I improved, enough so that by summer’s end the therapist said I needed no further sessions. I still had trouble with certain words (one that bedevils me even today is “gesture”), but not enough that when I entered first grade my classmates and teacher appeared to notice. Nevertheless, certain habits of silence had taken hold. It was not just self-consciousness. Even before my sessions with the speech therapist, I had convinced myself that if I listened attentively enough to others my own tongue would be able to mimic their words. So I listened more than I spoke. I became comfortable with silence, and, not surprisingly, spent a lot of time alone wandering nearby woods and creeks. I entertained myself with stories I made up, transporting myself into different places, different selves. I was in training to be a writer, though of course at that time I had yet to write more than my name.

Yet my most vivid memory of that summer is not the Saturday morning sessions at the high school but one night at my grandmother’s farmhouse. After dinner, my parents, grandmother and several other older relatives gathered on the front porch. I sat on the steps as the night slowly enveloped us, listening intently as their tongues set free words I could not master. Then it appeared. A bright-green moth big as an adult’s hand fluttered over my head and onto the porch, drawn by the light filtering through the screen door. The grown-ups quit talking as it brushed against the screen, circled overhead, and disappeared back into the night. It was a luna moth, I learned later, but in my mind that night it became indelibly connected to the way I viewed language--something magical that I grasped at but that was just out of reach.

In first grade, I began learning that loops and lines made from lead and ink could be as communicative as sound. Now, almost five decades later, language, spoken or written, is no longer out of reach, but it remains just as magical as that bright-green moth. What writer would wish it otherwise.

From The New Yorker

Set in 1929, in the rugged mountains of North Carolina, Rash's novel is a tightly knit tale of industrial development, greed, and betrayal. George Pemberton and his new bride, Serena, maintain a close watch over a burgeoning logging empire, dealing with their workers while fighting off the efforts of environmental activists to expand the country's network of national parks. As the title character, a Depression-era Lady Macbeth wholly comfortable in the wilderness drives her husband to commit increasingly malevolent acts, he must also contend with the reemergence of a woman with whom he had an illegitimate child years earlier. Rash's evocative rendering of the blighted landscape and the tough characters who inhabit it recalls both John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy, while the malignant character of Serena, who projects a stark unflinching certainty about her actions, propels his finely paced story.
Copyright ©2008 Click here to subscribe to The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco; 1 edition (October 7, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061470856
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061470851
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (733 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #116,831 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Ron Rash is the author of the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Finalist and New York Times bestselling novel, Serena, in addition to three other prizewinning novels, One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, and The World Made Straight; three collections of poems; and four collections of stories, among them Burning Bright, which won the 2010 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, and Chrmistry and Other Stories, which was a finalist for the 2007 PEN/Faulkner Award. Twice the recipient of the O.Henry Prize, he teaches at Western Carolina University.

Customer Reviews

Make sure that you read this book all the way through to the VERY END!!!
This is a novel that achieves what only the best do: a mesmerizing story, indelible characters, and gorgeous writing.
R. Cooper
Too dark a story with not enough background for character development for Serena.
carol Prince

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

153 of 167 people found the following review helpful By David W. Straight on September 25, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Serena is an expansion of a long short story by Ron Rash. Pemberton's Bride is the longest and the best of the tales in Chemistry. A second short story from that book, Speckled Trout, was expanded into the novel The World Made Straight. Not many short stories--even long short stories such as Pemberton's Bride--can be made into successful full-length novels. Too often the result has a padded feel to it, as with Edgerton's Bible Salesman, which would have worked best as a novella. But Pemberton's Bride had a power to it, and was intense, compact, dark, and strongly character-driven. There are two central figures--George Pemberton and his new wife Serena--who arrive in western North Carolina to oversee operations on Pemberton's logging operation. A few of the main parts of the plot are altered when the 46-page short story was expanded into a 370-page novel, but the novel is deeper, richer, and darker--there's never a sense of padding.

The very first paragraph of the novel (and short story) quickly set the lasting tone: in 1929 a backwoods father waits on the station platform for the arrival of the Pembertons. He is accompanied by his 16 or 17-year old daughter, pregnant by Pemberton, and carries a freshly-honed bowie knife to plunge into Pemberton's heart. After the Pembertons arrive, some words are exchanged, Harmon draws his bowie knife and approaches Pemberton. "'We're settling this now,' Harmon shouted. 'He's right,' Serena said, "Get your knife and settle it now, Pemberton.'" Which Pemberton indeed does. So you immediately see that Serena is no shrinking violet. She's tough--tougher than Pemberton--and brutal--more brutal than Pemberton. People who stand in the Pembertons' way have an unfortunate tendency to die, usually unpleasantly.
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79 of 86 people found the following review helpful By Tim Peeler on September 5, 2008
Format: Hardcover
One of Ron Rash's early short stories relates the tale of a Chinese potter who in despair, having failed to produce the perfect glaze and color for his pots, flings himself into the oven. The result, of course, is pottery that bears the glaze and tone that he sought. To a certain extent, this is what Rash has done with SERENA. Years of near maniacal labor have produced what is clearly his finest work of fiction to date. The story is epic; the female protagonist is like nothing in American literary fiction; and as the early sale of film rights would indicate, the novel is all but screen-ready.

What makes this a really fine novel, however, is not just character development or plot or neo-Elizabethan convention. It is the line-by-line attention that a reader might ordinarily expect from poetry. Page after page, in SERENA, I got the same feeling that I get when reading McCarthy or Faulkner, the feeling that every word matters, the feeling that when Rash revised this novel, he didn't just try to fix what might have appeared awkward or out of tune. He did his best to make it as seamless and "perfect" as his sanity would allow. In the process he produced a balance between tension and humor, grimness and grit, destruction and reclamation while creating a role that will likely accelerate some lucky actress's career.
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47 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Burgmicester VINE VOICE on October 6, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Ron Rash has melded richly developed characters,the type that I thought passed with the masters of old, and encased them in a highly readable, interesting, yet, unusual setting. I've always read a lot of fiction, but recently, I've found much of it formulaic and lacking satisfaction. This book changes my opinion. I must not have been looking in the right places. The storyline is set in the Depression Era in the Asheville, North Carolina area in a lumber camp with a cast of characters that you constantly struggle to understand whether you like them, admire them or just downright despise them. Some will become your strength, some your mortal enemies, some your alter ego and still others are just bit players used to enhance the narrative - a very unique way to do this.

There are several subplots taking place and one is told from a perspective that I've not seen before - how the purchase of land for a National Park (The Great Smoky Mountains) could cause such hardship for so many.

I found myself struggling through the first twenty-five pages trying to find a rhythm with the author, as my first inclination - as it is with so many of today's fiction dramas - was to blow through this book: reading through the descriptive phrases and latching onto the quotations in and effort to read it without much time being spent. That would have been a tremendous mistake. The writing is so beautiful, that I was finding myself going back to re-read many sentences just for the beauty of the descriptions and metaphors. So I settled into a little slower rhythm, extending my reading time based on the number of words per minute, but allowing the richness of the story to take me into its world.
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71 of 82 people found the following review helpful By Michael D. Hintze on January 17, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Much of this book was very enjoyable -- the vivid descriptions of the land; the local dialects and the banter among the loggers; some (but not all) of the character development. I would repeatedly find myself getting sucked into this book; but too often I would find myself rolling my eyes by either a turn in the story that was just too implausible to overlook or the use of characters who were far too one-dimensional to be believable.

I don't want to give too much away, but here are a few examples. The inclusion of the logger's mother with psychic powers was just silly, and struck me as a rather lazy way to create more tension and sense of danger by making it nearly impossible for the Pemberton's victims to hide and get away. I found Pemberton's unwavering devotion to his wife to be implausible - or at least never adequately explained. The conversation among the loggers near the end in which they suddenly realized the environmental devastation they wrought was just a bit over the top in that it practically sounded like they were about to stand up and organize a chapter of Greenpeace. The conclusion of the story felt both unrealistic and unsatisfying.

The most well-developed character was Rachel Harmon, and I found those parts of the book that focused on her, and her struggle to care for and protect her child, to be the most enjoyable. As noted above, the dialog among the local loggers was a lot of fun to read in most cases. But the parts of the story that focused on the ambition and greed of the Pembertons and their resulting killing spree felt shallow, predictable, and at times just a bit ridiculous.
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