As you read a novel, you do not need to like the protagonists; in fact, it’s possible to hate the main characters and still enjoy the novel. You can sympathize with them, understand their problems, relate to them, recognize their moral dilemmas, and even wish them success towards their goals. All while despising them. Such was the case I found myself in as I read The Reserve by Russell Banks. It’s a novel with dual protagonists—the manipulative socialite Vanessa Cole and the alpha male Jordan Groves—and I found neither of them good people. I wouldn’t call either evil—though Vanessa comes close—but both are selfish narcissists who enjoy their reputations for scandal. They value personal freedom. In the pursuit of that freedom, they feel no concern for those they hurt or the damage they cause.
The title refers to The Wilderness Reserve, a private resort for America’s wealthiest citizens. Located in the Adirondack Mountains, it’s remote and underdeveloped. Most of the members stay at the lodge on the First Tamarack Lake, but some of the early members, like Dr. Carter Cole, Vanessa’s father, own their own “camps.” Since the novel called them camps, so will I, but most of us would call them summer cabins. Indeed, the description of the Coles’ camp makes it clear it’s more luxurious than most people’s homes. The trick is to create the illusion—or delusion—of “roughing it” without suffering rustic discomfort. Overlooking the Second Tamarack Lake, the Coles’ camp is more isolated than most, more detached, more sheltered.
The novel takes place during the summer of 1936; in fact, it begins on July 4. The world was in transition. The Great Depression made paupers out of millionaires. Unemployment was chronic, especially in this remote region of the Adirondacks. In Europe, the Spanish Civil War, the prologue to the Second World War, raged. If World War One was about land—empire against empire—then the Second World War, especially in its European theater, was about ideology: democracy against fascism, fascism against communism, communism against democracy. This three-way tug-a-war would define the final half of the 20th Century. Though it didn’t begin with the Spanish Civil War, that war was an early clash inspired by these ideological conflicts. It and the Great Depression served as a historical backdrop to The Reserve.
But those who stayed at The Wilderness Reserve were sheltered from these events. They were the wealthy class who experienced the Great Depression as an economic burp—inconvenient, yes, but nothing that would ruin their wealth or threaten their privileged lifestyle. As the resort’s name implies, it preserves the wilderness, but its real purpose was to sheltered its members, to preserve their status, to protect their leisure, to measure time in cocktail parties and hunting excursions.
It was a seaplane with two large pontoons, and she thought she was watching a man about to crash his airplane deliberately against the thousand-foot vertical slab of gray granite, and she forgot her cold thoughts and grew almost excited, for she had never seen anyone kill himself and realized that in some small way she’d always wanted to and was surprised by it. The pilot seemed about to smash the airplane against the rock face of the mountain, when, less than a hundred yards from it, he banked hard to the left, dipped the wings back to horizontal, cut the engine speed nearly to stopping, and swiftly descened toward the water.Page 5
Vanessa is a product of that leisure class. Abandoned as an infant, she’s the adopted daughter of Dr. Carter Cole and his wife, Evelyn. Raised like a princess, she knew no want, but the Coles, like every family, had their secrets, their hangups, their tragic flaws. Dark secrets troubled Vanessa. She married young but divorced. After suffering a breakdown, she spent time at an asylum in Switzerland. Now, at thirty, she’s again living with her parents. A socialite, she spends her time attending cocktail parties and seducing lovers. Though she enjoys the freedom her father’s wealth and status affords her, the family secrets haunt her. Her erratic behavior troubles her parents, especially her mother, who believes Vanessa needs to be committed back into the Swiss hospital.
Jordan Groves is a man with a foot in both worlds—the poverty-stricken world of The Great Depression and the isolated luxury of The Wilderness Reserve. Though not a member of the Reserve, he lives in its shadows and enjoys associating with its members. An artist famous for his woodcuts of the Adirondacks, he values his freedom more than his marriage to Alicia. He owes an airplane and uses it to feel free. He even lands the floatplane on the Second Lake—banned by the Reserve. He’s a man’s man, quick with his fists when insulted, and in the presence of a beautiful woman, quick with his cock. He often leaves his wife and sons behind to go on expeditions around the world. He writes about these expeditions in published journals, which includes descriptions of his sexual conquests in language as explicit as Henry Miller. He justifies these infidelities because he’s never “loved” any of his lovers. His body cheats on Alicia but not his emotions.
Of course, that ends on July 4, 1936, when Jordan meets Vanessa. In plot, The Reserve is a boy-meets-girl story, but this is no love story, no fairy tale romance. They meet each other on the cusp of personal tragedy. Both will suffer a crisis that threatens their freedom and challenges their narcissistic delusions. “Will they or won’t they” was only one of many questions that kept me turning the pages of this novel. After the first fifty pages, it wasn’t even the most pressing question. The Reserve subverted my expectations of what was going to happen. I expected a simple story about an adulterous affair, but as everyone knows after a certain age, there is no such thing as a simple love affair—especially when it entails deceit and betrayal. Ah yes, there’s adultery in these pages, but so much more.
“Look, you’re not some pretty little Chilean dance hall girl showing me her tits, or a smiling round-faced Inuit girl lying naked under a bearskin blanket, or some doe-eyed model from the Art Students League dying to sleep with the famous artist. You’re not one of those Fifth Avenue society hostesses looking for a discreet tumble in the maid’s room after the party’s over and the other guests have gone home. No, you’re like me, Vanessa Von Heidenstamm. And people like you and me, we leave a lot of wreckage behind us. I don’t want my family to be part of that wreckage. That’s all I’m saying.”Page 81
In genre, The Reserve is a historical novel, but in quality, it’s a literary novel. I think it will satisfy both the readers who want a page-turner to pass the time and the readers who seek the deeper story. Its plot is realistic, and all the characters are complex and believable. Most of the historical novels I read focus on the significant historical events, like the Battle of Gettysburg or the collapse of the Roman Republic. But history happens to people. The Reserve reminds us that those people are not always concerned with the world-changing; they are often focused on personal dramas. The drama in The Reserve is well worth reading.