Impressions: “Serena” by Ron Rash


Note on this type of post: I am positive that there are formal standards for a book review, and also that there are people far more qualified and more well-spoken than I who should be writing them. Instead of rolling myself up into a knobbly ball of anxiety over doing something right, I am going to write what I’m calling ‘Impressions’ posts, which boil down to two points:

  1. Did I Like The Thing In Question, and Why?
  2. Do I Recommend This Thing To You?

I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, because I’d like nothing better than for these posts to spur you to read the book in question and then come back and talk to me about it!


Did I like this book? Fuck yes, I did. “Serena”, by Ron Rash, is a historical novel set in the western North Carolina mountains in the 1930’s, and tells the story of two primary conflicts: the small scale personal conflict of an unhealthy marriage and the large-scale conflict between logging companies and the wealthy pushing to establish our National Forests. Serena and her husband George Pemberton own a timber business and are determined to make a shit ton of money out of it, and no-one and nothing is going to get in their way.

Part of what I found fascinating about this book is it is definitely the story of the women in Pemberton’s life – both Serena and Rachel Harmon, Pemberton’s previous (and pregnant) paramore. Pemberton is the narrator for all of Serena’s scenes, and yet he becomes more and more transparent, as Serena’s character develops and envelopes him. He becomes merely the framework of the window through which we view the immensely strong-willed woman who he comes to worship.

Serena is one of the best female characters I’ve read in quite a while. It’s going to be difficult to discuss her without major spoilers, but let me say this: watching her character unfold from the first scene, where she deboards the train from Boston in this new North Carolina wilderness and is confronted by her new husband’s old lover, Rachel, and her furious father, and her handling of the situation – well, I’m not going to describe it better than The New York Times:

Serena defines herself with a single gesture. She extracts the knife that Pemberton plunged into the man, hands it to his now-orphaned daughter, Rachel Harmon, and advises Rachel to sell it.

“That money will help when the child is born,” Serena says coolly. “It’s all you’ll ever get from my husband and me.”

RIGHT? And she only gets more ruthless from there. It’s amazing.

Contrasting with this is Rachel’s story, told from her point of view as an unwed mother to Pemberton’s son, as, without her father, she learns to stand on her own two feet in a community that judges her harshly for her perceived weakness. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but Rachel and her son Jacob are drawn into the web of steely-willed murder that Serena spins in her quest for money and power, and the end of Rachel’s story left me unable to turn the pages quickly enough to see what happened next.

A brief aside: there are a group of loggers who reflect on the happenings in their timber camp, owned by the Pembertons, and I loved their local vernacular, musings on the murderous actions of their employers, and surprising depth of character. At the time of reading, I felt as though they were almost a Shakespearan trope of rustics, and I was super pleased with myself when I read an interview with the author who said that was exactly what he had in mind.

So, in conclusion, Fuck Yes, I Liked This Book, and I’m Gonna Buy It. I strongly recommend it to you, especially my feminist friends, because then you’ll come back and we’ll have a spirited discussion about it!

Ratings System:

5 Stars – Fuck Yes, I Liked This Book, and I’m Gonna Buy It

4 Stars – Yes, I Liked It, But Not Enough to Own It

3 Stars – I Was Neither Overwhelmed Nor Whelmed By This Book

2 Stars – A Steaming Heap of Mediocrity

1 Star – Seriously, This Got Published?!

2 thoughts on “Impressions: “Serena” by Ron Rash

  1. First of all, I love your unfiltered “Impressions” better than any hoity toity fancy worded book review. And I’m not saying this because I’m your friend. I’m saying this because raw visceral emotional reactions are much more interesting than something that is “formatted correctly”.

    Secondly, I love the way you talk about these characters–vague but with enough detail to pique my interest. I’ll definitely add it to my list of books I might get to read in this lifetime! Haha!

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