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Serena: A Novel (P.S.) [Paperback]

Ron Rash
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (611 customer reviews)

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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.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Bookmarks Magazine

In this beautifully written gothic novel, Rash paints an unforgettable portrait of a truly frightening woman, an "Ayn Rand [character] taken to sociopathic extremes" (Christian Science Monitor). Drawing comparisons to Lady Macbeth and Medea, critics were repulsed and fascinated by Serena. Though some felt that her wickedness, undiluted by the slightest pangs of compassion or empathy, crossed into the realm of caricature toward the end, they all agreed that it was impossible to put the book down. Serena is not overtly political, despite a depraved doctor named Cheney, but it does provide a stinging indictment of the devastation wrought by greed, unfettered capitalism, and the misuse of power. Readers will be haunted by this extraordinary novel long after the final page is turned.
Copyright 2009 Bookmarks Publishing LLC --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Rash’s short stories and previous novels are all set in Appalachia and enriched by the region’s unique history. This is his most gripping work yet, a sweeping saga of unfathomable greed and revenge that grabs the reader’s attention from the first page. The Depression-era tale is centered on newly married George and Serena Pemberton, owners of a logging company in the mountains of North Carolina. Their operation is aimed strictly at maximizing profits, with no regard for either the safety of their workers or the future of the land they’re pillaging. The tragic result of environmental disregard looms large in all of Rash’s fiction, and the Pembertons are his worst villains to date in that respect—leaving behind a “wasteland of stumps and slash and creeks awash with dead trout.” Side plots involve the drastic means, including murder, the couple employs to avoid losing land to environmental groups and Serena’s unflagging pursuit of the young girl who bore George’s son shortly after he and Serena were married. With a setting fraught with danger, and a character maniacal in her march toward domination and riches, Serena is a novel not soon forgotten. --Deborah Donovan --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“Beautifully written, utterly unforgettable. To my mind, this novel, as powerful and inexorable as a thunderstorm, is as good a piece of fiction as was published last year and a new classic in the category of love gone terribly wrong.” (Anna Quindlen)

“A gorgeous, brutal writer.” (Richard Price, bestselling author of LUSH LIFE)

“Ron Rash’s SERENA will stand as one of the major American novels of this century. It is a flat-out masterpiece-mythic, terrifying, and beautiful.” (Lee Smith)

“From the moment she steps off the train, Serena Pemberton commands center stage in Ron Rash’s rough-hewn tale of unchecked ambition. Universal in scope, frightening in its brutality, Serena is an unflinching vision of blighted souls played out against the backdrop of a nearly-lost Appalachia.” (David Wroblewski, New York Times bestselling author of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle)

“[Rash] has outdone himself. The story of this brilliant, ambitious, seductive woman is a searing tragedy of Shakespearean proportions—or, in simpler terms, a damn good book that will keep you awake far too late and, well after you’ve finished it, haunt your dreams.” (Julia Glass, National Book Award winning author of THREE JUNES)

“A powerful tale, well told, SERENA is enriched by Rash’s artful use of language. With just the right turn of phrase, dead-on details and subtle use of symbol, he delivers a story that will remain with readers long after the final page.” (Charlotte Observer)

“Beautifully written…” (Seattle Times)

“The opening is unforgettable…the last hundred pages are thrilling…should be a breakthrough for this masterful storyteller.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))

“An Appalachian retelling of Macbeth, a thriller, a word-perfect evocation of an era and a people, a grim chapter in the history of conservation: if Serena doesn’t finally win Ron Rash the overdue attention of the national literary (and cinematic) establishments, I can’t imagine what they’re holding out for.” (Arthur Phillips, author of Prague)

“This is a must-read novel.” ( (Contemporary Literature))

“Rash is a storyteller of the highest rank and SERENA confirms this from the opening sentence to the final page. An epic achievement.” (Jeffrey Lent, bestselling author of IN THE FALL)

“Ron Rash’s new novel Serena catapults him to the front ranks of the best American novelists. This novel will make a wonderful movie, and the brave actress who plays Serena is a shoe-in for an Academy Award nomination.” (Pat Conroy)

“With bone-chilling aplomb, linguistic grace and the piercing fatalism of an Appalachian ballad, Mr. Rash lets the Pembertons’ new union generate ripple after ripple of astonishment.” (Janet Maslin, The New York Times)

“A harrowing tour de force that might be the most timely and dangerous novel released this fall... Rash has gone beyond any Southern gothic tale to weave a complex and riveting portrait in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez...brilliantly conceived.” (Huffington Post)

“Too hypnotic to break away from...And the final chapter is as flawless and captivating as anything I’ve read this year, a perfectly creepy shock that will leave you hearing nothing but the wind between the stumps.” (Washington Post Book World)

“From that arresting opening…the violence escalates along with the tension in this absorbing story about rapacious greed in Depression-era Appalachia…Thrilling stuff.” (People)

“Masterfully written...The book is consistently heartbreaking in its portrayal of what humans are capable of…sprawling [and] engrossing.” (San Francisco Chronicle)

From the Back Cover

A New York Times notable book of the year

Award-winning and New York Times bestselling novelist Ron Rash conjures a gothic tale of greed, corruption, and revenge with a ruthless, powerful, and unforgettable woman at its heart, set amid the wilds of 1930s North Carolina and against the backdrop of America's burgeoning environmental movement.

About the Author

Ron Rash is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel The Cove, in addition to three other prizewinning novels, One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, and The World Made Straight; four collections of poems; and four collections of stories, among them Something Rich and Strange, Nothing Gold Can Stay, Burning Bright, which won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, and Chemistry and Other Stories, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Twice the recipient of the O. Henry Prize, he teaches at Western Carolina University.

From The Washington Post

From The Washington Post's Book World/ Reviewed by Ron Charles Serena, the Lady Macbeth of Ron Rash's stirring new novel, wouldn't fret about getting out the damned spot. She wouldn't even wash her hands; she'd just lick it off. I couldn't take my eyes off this villainess, and any character who does ends up dead. Alluring and repellant, she's the engine in a gothic tale of personal mayhem and environmental destruction set in the mountains of North Carolina during the Depression. We meet her as the new bride of a timber baron arriving to survey 34,000 acres of virgin land that she and her husband, Pemberton, hope to strip as quickly as possible. The other investors don't bring their wives into the mountains like this, but Serena is no ordinary wife. At the start of the novel, the newlyweds are intercepted at the train station by the father of a pregnant 16-year-old girl. Pemberton can't even remember her name, but he doesn't doubt she's carrying his baby; Serena is unfazed. "You're a lucky man," she tells the girl's father, who's seething with drunken rage. "You'll not find a better sire to breed her with." Then she turns to the girl: "But that's the only one you'll have of his. I'm here now." Yikes, is she ever. Wearing her leather jodhpurs and black boots, she strides through the story that follows with frightening self-confidence. She speaks with unquestioned authority to Pemberton's employees, rough-hewn men who've lived in these isolated hills for generations. The orphaned daughter of a wealthy timber man in Colorado, she immediately impresses even the most skeptical lumberjacks with her shrewd knowledge of the business. She can calculate board feet just by glancing at a towering tree, and though she attended finishing school in New England, she prefers the Spartan accommodations of her husband's Appalachian camp. "Money freed to buy more timber tracts," she reassures him. Drill, baby, drill! Rash portrays them as the perfect power couple, not a match made in heaven, perhaps, but someplace much lower. "Their meeting wasn't mere good fortune," Serena insists, "but inevitability." A strapping, commanding man of 27, Pemberton is thrilled to have found a woman so in tune with his spirit, even if she sometimes pushes him toward actions more deadly than prudent. Nothing heats up their bed more than rubbing out a too-cautious investor or a potential opponent. Holding Serena in his arms, feeling her "severe keenness," he's filled with "a sense of being unshackled into some limitless possibility." Serena is a blazing expansion of a short story in Rash's 2007 collection, Chemistry. Among other things, the longer form gives Rash room to set the ambitions of this rapacious couple against a seminal moment in the environmental movement. Even as Pemberton and Serena dream of denuding every mountain in Appalachia, the secretary of the interior, with backing from John D. Rockefeller, is aggressively buying up and seizing property for the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Owners like Pemberton could make a fortune by raping the land before they lost or sold it to the government. Rash gracefully folds this history into his fictional drama and includes several other real-life figures, such as the nature writer Horace Kephart. The political battle that rumbles in the background of the novel is all too sadly reminiscent of the one we're still fighting over vast tracts of untouched land. Rash, who teaches Appalachian cultural studies at Western Carolina University, constantly reminds us of what's at stake: "As the crews moved forward," he writes, "they left behind an ever-widening wasteland of stumps and slash, brown clogged creeks awash with dead trout. . . . The valley and ridges resembled the skinned hide of some huge animal." But Rash's description of the laborers is filled with awe for the hellish conditions they endure, working six 11-hour shifts a week, in all weather. When winter arrives, frostbite is a fair trade for snakebites. In startling, brief scenes, we see men sliced, impaled, drowned and crushed. "Some used cocaine to keep going and stay alert," he writes, "because once the cutting began a man had to watch for axe blades glancing off trees and saw teeth grabbing a knee and the tongs on the cable swinging free or the cable snapping. . . . If you could gather up all the severed body parts and sew them together, you'd gain an extra worker every month." As the Depression grinds on, though, there are always cheap, willing replacements. In addition to writing short stories, Rash is also a fine poet, and he brings a poet's concision and elliptical tendencies to this novel. As a result, these scenes and conversations constantly suggest more than they show, a technique that renders them alluring, sometimes erotic, often frightening. And his restraint is a necessity to keep this gothic tale from slipping into campiness. That's a real danger when you've got a beautiful murderess striding around the forest with a pet eagle on her wrist and a one-armed goon at her side. Frankly, it's sometimes difficult to catch the author's tone in these passages; the book seems deadly serious, but there are moments -- the bizarre battle between Serena's eagle and a komodo dragon, for instance -- when one suspects that Rash is rolling his eyes, too. But this is the challenge of the gothic novel: managing the accretion of excesses in a way that doesn't break the spell. The blind hag who delivers prophesies to the lumbermen, the insane preacher who warns of impending doom, even the portentous eclipse of the moon -- all these details rise up just right. The only weakness may be Serena herself; as her ambitions begin to outpace her husband's, I couldn't help feeling that she was shrinking toward a caricature of evil. But by then, it's too hypnotic to break away from. Innocent people are in peril, and calamity seems as unstoppable as the millions of board feet Pemberton's men send surging down the river. And the final chapter is as flawless and captivating as anything I've read this year, a perfectly creepy shock that will leave you hearing nothing but the wind between the stumps.
Copyright 2008, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From AudioFile

Combine Rash's prose (just enough, never too much), his great story (wonderful pacing, suspense, and characters), and Phil Gigante's superb narration--and you have what amounts to a perfect listening experience. Gigante provides outstanding voices for an ambitious couple who run a lumber business in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929. Protagonist Serena is given an upper-crust voice and her husband, a deep, commanding tone that fits the character perfectly. Gigante excels equally for the other characters--ranch hands, a young woman caring for her son, an evil henchman, a benevolent sheriff, and many more. Gigante never falters. His stellar performance and Rash's believable dialogue of the times create a winning listening experience. M.B. © AudioFile 2009, Portland, Maine --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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