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Review – Serena by Ron Rash

serena

Serena
by Ron Rash
367 pages
Published 2008
Fiction
October 7, 2008

Serena by Ron Rash has the character everyone loves to hate. Serena is ruthless, evil, and brilliant.

Serena marries George Pemberton in 1929 in Boston, and it only takes them a couple of months before they travel to North Carolina where they will together run a timber company George owns. When they arrive at the camp, Serena picks out a man who doesn’t have much respect for her and challenges him to a contest: whoever can total board feet of a particular tree would pay the other two weeks wages. When Serena wins, she and George decide that once this man has worked his two weeks off (without wages), he’ll be fired. Heartless doesn’t even begin to describe Serena.

It is with this cunning and ruthlessness that Serena and George run their timber company. Shortly after Serena’s arrival, she buys a hawk and trains it to hunt snakes, lending a mythical quality to the rumors that already ran rampant through the camp about her.

When Serena miscarries her first child and is unable to bear more children, she sets out to kill the one woman with whom George had fathered a child, a woman who George had had an affair with before he married Serena.

The book alternates from following George and Serena to following Rachel Harmon (the woman who bore George’s child), and while the voice is in third person, the reader is never given insight into Serena. Any insight into Serena is doled out second-hand, through George, the timber workers, or Rachel. I wished that Serena’s character could have been fleshed out a little more, perhaps by having her as the narrator or by allowing a more omniscient view.

Much is lost to the reader in the choice of narration. While a large part of the story is touted on the book’s jacket flap as being Serena hunting down Rachel, all the reader knows is that Serena is hunting Rachel, but we never get a look into her twisted mind, leaving us to guess at Serena’s motivations and feelings.

While I wished the narration had been different, I really enjoyed the story. You wonder how far Serena will go to advance her business intentions, and by the end of the book you realize that Serena will not let anyone or anything stand in her way.

********(added in after review was written) When I was having lunch with a friend, he told me about a short story he read that showed the characters in a way that an artist will show an image by using negative space. That is what the author does here: we see Serena through the eyes of others, thereby leaving us a picture of the main character by seeing what those around her think. I like this idea in theory, though Serena’s husband never sees Serena as she really is, partly because he is very much like her, so he becomes somewhat of an unreliable narrator.************(end added inspiration)

At the end of the book, the author says the story is based on a a real Serena Pemberton, a timber baronness, who was murdered with a knife when she was old, and the guard to her house says he saw her try to pull the knife from her chest and when he found her, she was still standing but she was very much dead. People who knew her didn’t doubt the veracity of the guard’s account. This woman was so headstrong and determined that she wouldn’t even lay down to die. How is this a story you wouldn’t want to read about?

Rating: 89 out of 100

Unfortunately, Ron Rash doesn’t have his own website, but you can find out more about Ron Rash on HarperCollins.

Buy Serena from Powell’s | Buy Serena from Amazon

Other reviews:

Breaking the Fourth Wall

Both Eyes Book Blog

| Tags: , , , , , 29 comments »

29 Responses to “Review – Serena by Ron Rash”

  1. amy btw m

    Wow, that sounds a little crazy to me. Thanks for your review.
    I gave you the Let’s Be Friends award. Thanks for blogging.
    http://haikuamy.blogspot.com/2009/04/lets-be-friends.html

    [Reply]

  2. bybee

    Oh cool! I want to read this book!!!

    [Reply]

  3. Marg

    I have heard such good things about this book! I will get to it eventually!

    [Reply]

  4. Kathy

    I thought there was a real Serena Pemberton. She sounds like the type of person you love to hate. The book sounds like one I would like.

    [Reply]

    trish Reply:

    There was a real Serena Pemberton. The author talks about her at the end of the book. That story was fascinating, merely because the real Serena Pemberton sounds a lot like how the author fictionalized her!

    [Reply]

  5. Scobberlotcher

    I like that you added the idea of “negative space” in writing in your review. Many authors, including me, have used this technique to varied effect – and it is interesting to get a reader’s point of view about it. (My readers have had the same reaction you mention here.) This is a hard idea to pull off and I’d love to read a book that does this brilliantly.:) I think perhaps this might work well in a cinematic form because then the viewer is watching from a distrance, too.

    I haven’t read Serena, but I did just pick up Ron Rash’s The World Made Straight.

    Excedllent post!

    [Reply]

    trish Reply:

    Wow! Thanks so much! Your opinion carries extra weight since you’re a writer. 🙂

    I would also like to see the use of negative space done really well in a story. The story my friend was referring to was one written by Cheever. Unfortunately, I haven’t read anything by him, but hopefully I will soon!

    [Reply]

  6. madeleine

    I seem to remember such a true story. Woooooohoooooooo what a wicked woman….dying standing up…..I have to read this book, I am not so much into crime and horror books but this book is based on a real woman so I will read it. Seems to me she was a psycopath of some kind, routhless and without consience.

    Thanks for the great review

    [Reply]

    trish Reply:

    madeleine, this book has no horror or crime. If anything, I’d say it’s a character study.

    [Reply]

  7. TexasRed

    Hmm… interesting.

    I left you an award over on my page: http://www.texasredbooks.com/2009/04/new-awards-and-moving-news.html

    [Reply]

  8. jess

    Trish,
    This was a fantastic review. I look forward to reading it and will add it to my TBR pile. Thanks!

    [Reply]

  9. Ian

    The main character sounds totally unrealisitic. I shall definitely steer clear of that one.

    [Reply]

    trish Reply:

    Thanks for your comment, Ian, but I’d like to stress that the character didn’t seem unrealistic to me. What did I mention that seemed unrealistic?

    [Reply]

  10. Ian

    “Serena is ruthless, evil, and brilliant………Heartless doesn’t even begin to describe Serena…….It is with this cunning and ruthlessness that Serena and George run their timber company……she buys a hawk and trains it to hunt snakes……I wished that Serena’s character could have been fleshed out a little more.” So do I.

    To be realistic, you can make a character 75% bad, but not 100%. You might be able to get away with it with a minor character, but not your main protagonist.

    [Reply]

    trish Reply:

    “To be realistic, you can make a character 75% bad, but not 100%.”

    Thanks for the clarification, Ian. I see your point, though I think there are some truly evil people out there. But that’s why I didn’t think Serena was as good as it would have been if the reader could have known what she is thinking because then she may not have come across as 100% bad. Or better yet, if the narrator had been Serena, perhaps we could have seen her decline from 75% to 100%.

    I appreciate your viewpoint, and look forward to more comments from you. 🙂

    [Reply]

  11. Amy @ My Friend Amy

    Sounds interesting. I mean how much more opposite of the name Serena could you get?

    [Reply]

  12. Kim L

    Interesting idea of creating a character through negative space. I think, though, it would also kind of annoy me to not have any extra insight into the homicidal main character. It seems like there would be creative ways to do this and still give insight into the MC.

    [Reply]

  13. Ralph

    Tell me, are you going to be at the UCLA Book Fair this week? If you are I would like to be able to see you. Dad

    [Reply]

  14. Shannon C.

    I normally don’t read this kind of thing, either, but your review intrigued me and I found an ebook copy and can’t wait to read it. Should be fascinating.

    [Reply]

  15. J.S. Peyton

    I just bought this last week and read a couple of chapter on the train. I almost couldn’t put it down. She seems like a very scary and fascinating woman. I love reading about dangerous women so this is right up my alley. I’ll be reading this very soon!

    [Reply]

  16. Beth F

    Whoa! that’s a super review. What a person. I think I’ll have to put this on on my radar — it sounds amazing. That photo on the cover is awesome — really shows one the horrible effects of no regulations. The forests in the U.S. East were totally clear-cut in the name of business.

    [Reply]

  17. Jenny

    I love a book with a cold-hearted heroine! (Embarrassing confession implicit in the next statement.) I have been sad lately that Gossip Girl has not featured more of Blair being evil, so I’m definitely in the mood for something with a really mean female protagonist.

    [Reply]

  18. zibilee

    This sounds like a very involving book with a horrible main character. Sometimes I enjoy really evil characters because you can really get behind the “love to hate ’em” aspect of the story. I had never heard of this book before, but I have put it on my list, so thanks!

    [Reply]

  19. SuziQoregon

    I read One Foot in Eden by Rash and just loved it. Passed it along to several family members and said “you have to read this book”. I’ve been looking forward to reading Serena ever since I started hearing the first reviews. Don’t know if I’ll be able to wait for the paperback or not . . . .

    Your review is not helping my willpower to wait at ALL!!

    [Reply]

  20. Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden « Jenny’s Books

    […] diary that describe how he saved a small Romanian town from vampires.  I recently read Trish’s book review of a book called Serena, in which she talked about the creation of negative space around a […]

  21. Serena (Savvy Verse & Wit)

    I had no idea I was so heartless….lol Sounds like a good book.

    [Reply]

  22. Biggie

    The book is a good read, but it could have been so much more. A basic tenet of fiction writing is to observe the character arc of the protagonist, who in this case has to be Serena. I agree that much is lost when the reader is spoon fed what Serena is like through other characters. Serena never changed throughout the novel. Her trajectory remained level thoughout the story. It the reader could have gotten into her head, as was the case with Pemberton, perhaps there would have been an opportunity to understand her. Dialogue is not nearly enough to understand someone. Serena had no self-revelation and no weaknesses per se. The ending is way too contrived.

    [Reply]

  23. Serena by Ron Rash « Page247

    […] Hey Lady, Watcha Readin’? […]

  24. crookedrib

    This book was crap. THe description of the environment went on and on and on in a way that didn’t flow at all. There as a loose attempt at adjectives but it was on again off again and when they were used, they were boring.
    Once again a story about a strong woman who is of course a bitch and the helpless woman in sweet.
    How very original.
    Yes, he is said to be a story teller and not a writer and that is certainly the truth. The only interesting part was the description of how she tamed the eagle.

    [Reply]

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