It was Atom Egoyan's film of The Sweet Hereafter that first brought me to Russell Banks. Those of his books that I've read capture that side of New England I came to know well when I lived in Worcester: the long winters, the gritty effort to get on. With this novel, we enter a different world. As it opens, wealthy Dr. Cole, his wife and adopted daughter Vanessa are celebrating the Fourth of July with their friends at the Cole's camp in the Adirondacks. The camp, of course, is a luxurious log home on a lake and is part of the Reserve, “a forty-thousand-acre privately owned wilderness” containing a number of such camps as well as the Tamarack Country Club.
The party is disrupted by the noise of a plane that appears over the lake, transgressing all the rules of the Reserve, and settles down on its pontoons at the Cole's dock. The pilot is famous artist Jordan Groves who has been invited by Dr. Cole to see his collection of paintings. Vanessa, famously beautiful but considered to be wild and quite spoiled, takes Jordan under her wing. Jordan too is wealthy, living on a three-hundred-acre spread not far away with his wife and two sons.
Circumstances change dramatically when Dr. Cole dies later that same evening, removing his flimsy constraints on Vanessa's behavior. The time is 1936, during the run-up to the Second World War. Jordan, a Hemingway-esque figure, loves to go adventuring to far corners of the world, but feels pressure to stay home with his family instead of joining the Air Force. The story circles around Jordan and Vanessa as they dance forward and away from each other, while suspicions grow about Dr. Cole's death and the country barrels towards war.
Interspersed with their story are short, italicised chapters relating events that initially seem to have nothing to do with the main story. Eventually, of course, all becomes clear. I'm generally not a fan of such mash-ups and loathe reading more than a paragraph of italicised text, so I was a little irritated by these chapters. However, I loved the descriptions of flying. I also enjoyed several of the minor characters, such as Hubert St. Germaine, a local guide, and Russell Kendall, the manager of the country club. I was far more interested in the lives of the locals than the shenanigans of the rich, but that probably says more about me than the book. I appreciated the parallels between the self-destructive course the main characters choose and the descent of the world into war.
I'd like to hear about other reactions to this book or to any of Russell Banks's novels.