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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.

371 pages, Hardcover

First published October 7, 2008

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About the author

Ron Rash is the author of the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Finalist and New York Times bestselling novel, Serena, in addition to three other prizewinning novels, One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, and The World Made Straight; three collections of poems; and four collections of stories, among them Burning Bright, which won the 2010 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, and Chemistry and Other Stories, which was a finalist for the 2007 PEN/Faulkner Award. Twice the recipient of the O.Henry Prize, he teaches at Western Carolina University.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,386 reviews
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,309 reviews120k followers
March 9, 2023
"I think this is what the end of the world will be like," McIntyre said, and none among them raised his voice to disagree.
In the primeval woods of North Carolina, young timber baron, George Pemberton, brings his bride, Serena, to live with him in his kingdom. He had been busy enough already, fathering a child with a local girl and clear-cutting wide swaths of land. Serena quickly establishes herself as a power in her own right, knowledgeable about the timber business from her family background in Colorado, frightened of nothing and totally, totally ruthless. She is both an almost deitific figure and a satanic one. She will tolerate no criticism and her ambition is beyond measure. Beware, any who would cross her path. Both murderer of people and proud rapist of the land, she acquires a henchman to take care of her dirtiest deeds, among which is the removal of George’s bastard child, and the child’s mother, and enlists a non-human assistant as well. One thing you should know is that whenever Serena speaks it is in iambic pentameter, another way in which Rash makes her stands out.

Ron Rash - image from StarTribune - shot by Ashley Jones

Literature with a capital L, Serena is one of the great dark females in literary history, up there with Livia, Lady MacBeth, and others of their ilk. Beautiful, beautiful writing.

This is the most satisfying read I have had all year (2009). Ron Rash is a major find. It is a wonder that he is not as well known as Ondaatje or others on that high plain. A feast, a powerful tale accompanied by a symphony of classical and literary tones. Hubris, greed, man and god, doing the right thing, magic, vengeance, good and evil, the essence of America, capitalism, and with a Greek chorus to boot. If this is not made into a world-class, best-picture level film it will be a huge, huge loss. This is a very cinematic book, [more on that below] rich in color, scenery, imagery, dramatic settings, shocking events, bigger than life characters, and all with purpose. Major, major work. It makes one yearn for more.

June 6, 2017 - I was alerted by GR friend Linda to the following from April 2017 - WCU's Ron Rash wins Guggenheim Fellowship - Rash deserves all the recognition there is, he is a national treasure.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Reviews of other Ron Rash books
-----2010 - Burning Bright
-----2012 - The Cove
-----2013 - Nothing Gold Can Stay
-----2015 - Above the Waterfall
-----2016 - The Risen
-----2020 - In the Valley

August 5, 2020 - GR’s Kindle Notes and Highlights featured Rash adding comments on the book - worth a look

Rash does not, so far as I can tell, have a facebook page. But his son, James, set up a Fan Club FB page for him.

================================THE FILM

2/10/15 - I wrote the above, somewhat thin, review several years back. If anything, it understates the power of the book. It was only a matter of time before the novel was translated to the big screen. It will be opening in the US later this month. I was honored to attend, yesterday, a screening of the new film, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Although hopes had been high initially, once the project got under way it became apparent that all would not end up as hoped. It was not, for example, taken on by one of Hollywood's A-list directors, despite the acting star-power. The result is, while not a bad film, not an exceptional one either, and that is a huge shame. The problems are diverse. The performances are quite good, as one would expect.


Liberties were taken with the character of Serena that I thought did not help. In the book, for example, it is clear early on that Serena is a dark and powerful force, with a hearty dollop of madness mixed in. The film plays her softer in the beginning, and offers an event that purports to spark her madness. I was reminded of another film that got this sort of thing wrong. Sweeney Todd. In the original theatrical production, Sweeney returns to London, quite sane, but determined to seek vengeance on the evil-doer who had done him dirt. It is when he fails in his initial attempt at the evil Judge Turpin that Sweeney goes all meat-pie in the head. The disappointing film portrays him as bonkers from the start, making him so much less human, which dilutes the impact of the savagery in which he engages. In Serena, she is a primal force from the git-go, and there is no need for the film to justify her dark-doings with an intermediate event. It is like attempting to justify a tornado. Don't. It just is. Bradley Cooper's character, Pemberton, seemed a bit harsher in the film than in the book, where, although he is an awful person, he was much more driven by events than he is in this treatment.

The book was written, at least in part, as a look at the rape of the land in North Carolina,
I thought it was a better way to look at the present, through the past. I wrote Serena because of what was happening a couple of years ago, with environmental issues -particularly it looked like there was going to be some really extensive logging in National Forests. It didn't quite happen as badly as I thought it was going to happen, but certainly the threat was there. - from 18:05 of Stacey Cochran’s interview with Rash on more2read.com
standing in for the rape of the land today, but that cinematographical smorgasbord was left on the table, mostly untouched. There are some scenes that let us in on the damage being done, particularly a brilliant scene in which Pemberton, in a public forum, challenges those who propose a national park that will include his land. But a lot more could have been offered visually to reinforce this theme.

Instead of a slow and steady build up of tension and pressure, the film seemed to mosey along, stopping far too often to linger in far too many closeups, making this one hour forty nine minute film feel much longer. The ending of the story, for Serena, is changed from that of the book. I suppose it is understandable, but I was hoping for greater allegiance to the original material.

Rash was asked, in a 3/24/15 interview by Judith Rosen in Publishers Weekly about his involvement with the film adaptations of Serena and an earlier novel
I made a decision early on not to read either screenplay. I answered a few questions from the screenwriters but was otherwise uninvolved in the filming. For me, that was better. I was deep into a new novel during that period and preferred to concentrate on something that, unlike film, I knew I could do well. Of course I hoped the movies would be as true as possible to my novels, but it is a different medium so differences are inevitable. Someone once asked Harry Crews what a film “might do” to his book, and he answered that a film didn’t change a single word in the book itself. That seems a good attitude for a writer to take.
A couple of minor notes, there is an unintentional joke when Cooper's character is referred to by another as a lousy shot. The trailer for the film contains a fabulous shot of Serena launching an eagle from her arm. Somehow that did not make it into the final cut.

The film is definitely interesting, but it struck me, overall, as a melody that was slightly out of tune, a drum that was off the beat, and a huge opportunity that was lost to bring one of the best novels of our time to the big screen. I can only hope that the presence of J-Law and Cooper can bring enough attention to Ron Rash's great novel to propel an increase in his readership. As one of our greatest living writers, he deserves that. He certainly deserved better than this only-ok film.
Profile Image for karen.
3,988 reviews170k followers
June 26, 2018
i am alarmed that i only wrote a four-line review of this amazing book. now that i am starting to read the cove, i figure now is as good a time as any to remind this website just how good ron rash is, and how so far, serena is the best of them. (i am only on page 15 of the cove, so this could change)

whenever i try to hand-sell this at work, i will usually just say: "it is like macbeth in a logging community. with a greek chorus." which as a customer, i would hear and think, "i must read this book." but it doesn't always work. heathens.

i mean, that's still as good a description as i can come up with, although serena gets her hands way dirtier than lady mcb. more like "out, damn river of blood."

this is a historical piece, chronicling the rise of an uber-power couple in a 1929 logging town in north carolina. serena enters the community after her new husband has already established himself there, and has already fathered a child on a local girl. she is displeased. and when serena is displeased, people are going to get hurt.

serena is one of the most wonderfully single-mindedly ruthless characters i have ever read. she knows her way around a logging operation better than her husband, she hunts and rides better than any of the men she and her husband oversee, and she has a freaking falcon. (i don't have my book with me right now, but i am pretty sure it is a falcon. it is some kind of bird that hangs out with its master and is completely badass.)

when she discovers that she is unable to bear a child herself, she sets out to destroy the one her husband has already fathered. and the girl. and the girl's father. and anyone else who has anything to say about it.

ron rash is an amazing man for description. he knows these logging towns, he knows the woods and the men who work there. there is so much life in this story, and most of it; the people and the trees they are felling, is the last gasp of this life. all is destruction.

i know i have said this in a another review somewhere, but what heightens the impact of this book is not only the danger of serena (and her husband ain't no pleasant master, either) but the danger of nature itself. like in my beloved descent, where the caves are just as dangerous as any subterranean monsters, cutting down gigantic trees is also extremely dangerous. many men will die, through natural accident or manipulation by the most ambitious couple in literature.

this is a glorious book, and needs to be read by all. except elizabeth. it has too much animal-death for her. it is a deadly operation,after all.

a quick note about how saddened i am that the movie that was in the works with darren arnofsky and angelina jolie got canceled. the word is now that there will still be a movie by susanne bier starring bradley cooper and jennifer lawrence, which is fine, but this character just screams jolie to me.

old stupid review:

this book has so damn much in it: the murderous machinations of the macbeths, the steinbeckian/old testament themes of justice and revenge, the casual murders nature can wreak that are cormac mccarthy cowboyish... and a greek chorus of sorts. i have name-dropped!! i have loved appalachia! i have finished my paper!

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Brina.
933 reviews4 followers
August 11, 2016
Since joining the southern literary trail group on goodreads, I have discovered many gifted authors who I normally would not have considered. It is in this regard that I was lead to the works of Ron Rash, a literature professor at Western Carolina university. Rash has won multiple awards for his novels, and I decided on Serena as the first of his novels to read.

George and Serena Pemberton are timber barons from Boston who have set up a logging camp in western North Carolina. Set in 1929 in the early days of the depression, the Pembertons fell trees at the expense of the fledging National Park Service who desire the land for themselves in order to leave a lasting gift for the American people. The loggers believe, however, that people need jobs more than an enduring present. This battle for the land becomes a plot that lasts for the duration of the novel.

Serena is ruthless and will not let the National Park Service or anyone else stand in the way of her dreams. Compared by many to Lady Macbeth, Serena employs a one-handed log camp worker named Galloway to murder anyone who threatens to stand between her and her ultimate goal, which is to set up a logging empire in virgin Brazilian forests. Having read Macbeth, I believe that Serena is more evil than her Shakespearean counterpart. Rash also employs a Greek chorus as loggers discuss Serena's bidding, adding to her lore in the logging camp. Her exploits astride an Arabian mare while training an eagle all the while proving equal than the male camp workers strengthen her myth. As her myth grows, so does her ruthlessness, and Rash follows this through the novel's conclusion.

Meanwhile, the one thing Serena wants but cannot have is a male heir. Prior to her arrival at the camp, George fathered a child by teenage camp waitress Rachel Harmon, and the child is his spitting image. Serena makes George choose between her and them, causing her husband to pull on his conscience. Serena becomes obsessed with seeking out Rachel and her son, creating a thrilling page turner that lasts for the last third of the novel.

I am sure that Serena will not be my last Rash novel. He has created memorable, fleshed out characters while writing strong prose that appeals to literary aficionados. Yet, Serena's character and quest also favors people who prefer thrillers. I enjoyed the balance between literary fiction and thriller as I read about depression era North Carolina, and I am extremely looking forward to reading more of Rash's books.
Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
666 reviews927 followers
August 8, 2022
“What made losing someone you loved bearable was not remembering but forgetting... it's amazing how much you could forget, and everything you forgot made that person less alive inside you until you could finally endure it."

Image result for serena movie

I really like strong female heroines and Ron Rash’s Serena delivers on that. You might not like her, but the novel’s title character is capable, resourceful and ruthlessly ambitious. I also enjoyed how Rash used the battle to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (early environmentalists versus timber interests in the late 1920s) to frame his fictional story. As was the case with The Cove (another Rash novel I've recently read), I was continually impressed with the writing; Rash's descriptions evoke the land and the people who inhabit it. And his use of historical details is always intriguing. In the end, though, Serena is written as a larger than life character in a way that undermines her believability. I also felt that foreshadowing in the book was a little heavy-handed and took suspense away from the unfolding plot. Overall, I enjoyed this book and will read more of Ron Rash’s writing!
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books248k followers
November 17, 2019
“A kind of annihilation, was what Serena called their coupling, and though Pemberton would never have thought to describe it that way, he knew her words had named the thing exactly.”

 photo Serena_zps13ip4d23.jpg
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence play the power couple in the 2015 movie.

George Pemberton brought back a wife from Boston. More than a wife, more of a force of nature as dangerous as a witch and as pretty as an angel. He feels stronger with her by his side, and though never a man lacking in confidence, that self-assurance is further emboldened by the Machiavellian counsel of his new wife. Before going to Boston to marry Serena, Pemberton fathered a child on a young girl named Rachel, a worker in the timber camp. When he returns after basking in the glow of his new wife, he can’t understand why he ever found Rachel attractive. In a place where women age quickly, her youth was her banner of attraction, but now he has Serena.

Rachel had a boy, the spitting image of Pemberton.

Rachel pays the price of her dalliances with Pemberton, not just with having an illegitimate child which seems potentially punishment enough, but by the condescending judgment of the other “Christian” women in the camp. What was she to do, tell him no? The women refuse to speak with her or even sit with her at lunch as if the taint of her sin could pass to them.
”She realized that being starved for words was the same as being starved for food, because both left a hollow place inside you, a place you needed filled to make it through another day.”

It is really hard to like people sometimes.

On the other hand, it is very easy to like Rachel. If one zig or zag of life had went a different direction, most of those women spurning her could have found themselves in a similar circumstances or worse. Compassion is something we all need from time to time, and though some of our bad fortune may be left at our own doorstep, rarely is anything all our fault. Sometimes fate just shakes out a pair of snake eyes.

There is this moment where Rachel is out in the middle of nowhere, slightly astray, but temporarily free from the burden of anxiety. ”She looked at the stars and they brightened and dimmed in accord with her breathing, as if one hard puff might blow the whole lot of them out like candles.” So much of our life is spent just stumbling forward barely noticing what is in front of us, but because she stopped, even ever so briefly, and looked at the stars, Rachel brought the universe to the cusp of her lips. Maybe some of that was in the attraction Pemberton once felt for her.

 photo serena eagle_zpsdntxvjji.jpeg
The right pet for the lady that wants to be taken seriously.

Serena is almost mythological among the men of the timber camp. She rides around with an eagle perched on her arm. She sends the bird out to kill rattlesnakes to reduce the number of bitten workers. The men admire her, lust after her, and fear her. “He (George) suspected the workers thought of Serena as beyond gender, the same as they might some phenomenon of nature such as rain or lightning.” Men who cross Pemberton or even men who get in his way start having mishaps. The Pembertons become richer and more powerful. In the backwoods of North Carolina, they can get away with...well...anything.

One good man isn’t enough to stand up to them. It takes a community, but this is 1929 and everyone is more afraid of losing their job than they are at stopping wickedness especially when the devil and his handmaiden have the keys to the gold.

Pemberton has a loose moral code. Well it’s not really much of a code per say as a philosophy of life. It is more of a what’s best for Pemberton code, and any soft edges he might have once possessed have been turned jagged with the steady influence of Serena. From the beginning, she seduces him with her sexual assurance and her focused intelligence. He has never met anyone like her, and fortunately for most of humanity, there are few like Serena.

As they get away with the worst of crimes, it only encourages them to do more. Every villain or villainess needs a henchman. When Galloway loses a hand, he expects to be sent down the road to a life of poverty and despair until Serena offers to keep him on the payroll as long as he is willing to do whatever she needs done.

He is understandably grateful, but there is only so much a man should sell of his soul to keep his place on this earth, and certainly Galloway decides to sell more than what any man should.

Pemberton is kept more and more in the dark as Serena clears a path for him. The swath she clears is not unlike the surface of the North Carolina hills after they are done harvesting trees. ”The valley and the ridges resembled the skinned hide of some large animal.”

When Serena loses a child and learns she can’t have more, she is upset for now there is someone who has given Pemberton what she can’t. She turns her thoughts to the child and the mother. Rachel has to run with the specter of the one armed man haunting her at every turn. ”Briars grabbed her legs and each time there was an instant she thought Galloway had her.”

Will Pemberton finally do something? Or is even this beyond his control? Is he willing to sacrifice his only offspring on the altar of Serena? Is this one time when God deigns to throw a glance at the workings of man or in this case... one woman?

 photo Serena202_zpspshpvceq.jpg
George, there are things you can live with and there are even things that YOU can’t live with.

Uriah Heep is always the first villain of fiction that comes to my mind when I think of a character that gave me the most chills, but Ron Rash’s creation, Serena Pemberton, certainly goes on the list. We are all born with a natural need for self-preservation. We have varying degrees of things we are willing to do to save ourselves. This can even be applied to less immediately dire concerns, like bettering our position in a financial or social way. There is something feral about people like Serena who perceive all threats or nuisances as equally threatening, whether it be a true rival or just a person who has become less useful. We’ve come to accept ruthlessness in a certain kind of man, but we still find it jarring when a woman is the one capable of being so merciless.

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at: https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
Profile Image for Jeanette (Ms. Feisty).
2,179 reviews1,945 followers
January 26, 2011
I read the first 90 pages of this book and couldn't continue. The writing is excellent, quite impressive, really. But when each chapter brought a new form of cruelty to animals, I had to stop.
Bashing in a raccoon's skull with an axe...Starving a captive eagle to bend it to your will...Baiting a field with corn and apples so you can shoot twelve deer and a bear for sport, then just leave them all piled in the middle of the field to rot after you've killed them...Are you sickened yet? I found myself distressed and in tears and I knew it was time to quit.

I can be fair and go with two stars instead of one because the writing and storytelling is good, but I don't think it was necessary to include that much brutality toward innocent creatures.
Profile Image for Delee.
243 reviews1,133 followers
October 12, 2017
I am constantly seeking out books with a Macbeth type theme. Unfortunately that is reeeeeaaaallly hard- There are not that many. :(

I also love unlikable characters in fiction- and I adore evil soulmates...because eventually evil people "in love" will turn on one another...and THAT is when things get interesting. One will always be more evil than the other...

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1929- Waynesville, North Carolina-

Newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains- where George shows Serena the place where they will create their timber Empire.

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Serena comes from a timber background- she ate, slept, and lived timber from the time she was a little girl- and in George she has found the man she finally thinks of as her equal...her soulmate...but there is one tiny little glitch by the name of Rachel. Because before George met Serena- he had a past in Waynesville- a past that is about to reveal itself in a baby. A baby boy that will gnaw at Serena- and be someone's undoing. More than one person's undoing actually...

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As Serena and George settle in to their life- people that stand in their way of happiness- start feeling the pressure. For Serena is a scary foe to have...

She may look like an angel...but Serena is far from angelic- sitting on her white horse with an eagle at her side...

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There are not many people that will get in her way...

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...and who is left standing at the end of it all...and who isn't- may surprise you...

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I loved this book!!! Serena is a villain you love to hate...and loving and hating makes for some on the edge of your seat reading.

Timber has never been this exciting.

Here is how we do things in Canada- cause THAT'S how we rooooollllll...

Log driver's waltz:

Profile Image for Jonathan Ashleigh.
Author 1 book118 followers
March 29, 2016
Beautiful descriptions and a great storyline. I don't like the title now that I have finished reading it but I think that is sort of the point and I'm not saying I know a better one. Ron Rash did a wonderful job of making the reader hate the characters that were to be hated, and also feel pity for those that were to be pitied.
Profile Image for Kelly (and the Book Boar).
2,479 reviews7,773 followers
May 26, 2017
Find all of my reviews at: http://52bookminimum.blogspot.com/

“You men notice so little. Physical strength is your gender’s sole advantage.”

Allow me to introduce you to Serena . . . . .

Aint’ she sweet?

Serena has moved to North Carolina to start a new life with her husband, the owner of a timber company . . . .

(Don’t worry – this ain’t a kissing book.) Upon arrival, Serena proves she’s not your average Depression era rich bitch lady of leisure. She wears pants, lives in camp with the axemen, rides a white stallion, and has a pet eagle that she teaches cool tricks . . . .

She’s also just a little . . . . .

Okay, maybe not a little. Serena pretty much embraces the idea of being a badass every day and she doesn’t care what or who she has to destroy in order to get what she feels should be hers. She’s a character you’re probably supposed to hate, but somehow you can’t help loving instead. Easily one of most wicked women I’ve ever read and I wouldn’t even have known about her if it weren’t for my favorite little witch recommending this to me for the Winter Reading Challenge. If you want something gritty and a lil’ chickenfried with shady business dealings, an illegitimate baby, and a handful of murders thrown in for good measure, this is the story for you.

Book two in my quest for a new coffee mug complete!

Profile Image for Zoeytron.
1,036 reviews690 followers
December 6, 2020
Set in the early 1930's in the forests nestled in the shadows of the North Carolina mountains.  I had consciously avoided this novel, the timber industry holding no appeal since my misbegotten foray into Annie Proulx's Barkskins territory.  This was not that.  At all.  Five stars, no contest.  The first thing I did upon finishing this book was to hand it over to my husband.  Ignore the cover and the title, you're going to want to read this!
Profile Image for reading is my hustle.
1,508 reviews298 followers
February 17, 2012
Wicked good storytelling.

Love to see the "power hungry female" fleshed out and OWNING it. Truly unlikeable character(s) in actions and deeds. Business partner not agree with your vision? Hunting accident. Disloyalty? Make an example out of him. The courageous and altruistic? SO DEAD. Strip and rape the land, too. Then move onto another country. Repeat.

Wow. Just wow.
Profile Image for Steve.
251 reviews899 followers
July 20, 2012
Strong, resourceful young women are enjoying the spotlight these days in popular fiction. There are enough of them that Jennifer Lawrence can’t possibly play them all in movie versions. Serena qualifies for the club with her street smarts (or its Appalachian equivalent), her initiative, and her poise in the face of danger. Too bad she’s also a bloodthirsty, bad-to-the-bone sociopath.

She and her husband George Pemberton are Depression-era timber barons in North Carolina. We’re introduced to them as newlyweds as they got off the train from Boston only to be greeted by a young teenager carrying George’s child along with the girl’s father who had a knife and no mind to negotiate. Serena told the girl she was lucky to have such a sire, but that she wouldn’t be so lucky again. The father wanted to settle matters, and Serena calmly told Pemberton that he should get his knife and do exactly that. At least it was a somewhat honorable fight. Later encounters would be less so.

It didn’t take long once they reached camp for Serena to establish herself as the alpha dog. Her father was a timber man in Colorado before she was orphaned, and he had taught her the business well. The men never doubted her knowledge or fortitude. In the coolest example of her mettle, she imported a large eagle and trained it to kill rattlesnakes with its dagger-like talons. That was one less danger for the men, but plenty of others still existed. It was said that if you took all the body parts that were lost in accidents and stitched them together, you’d get a new man every month. But at that time, you could always get more workers.

Soon enough, major impediments stood in their way. Conservationists wanted the timberland for National Parks, the various interests in the company partnership began to diverge, and the local law didn’t always see eye to eye with Serena and her accomplice in almost all matters, Pemberton. Once it was established the extremes to which Serena and Pemberton¹ would go, there wasn’t much nuance left in the characters. Good and evil were clearly established. With a view of logging as land rape, it could be no other way.

On the good side of the ledger, there was Rachel, the pregnant girl in the first chapter. She, too, was strong and resourceful, but with a lot less control. Things are more difficult with a baby and no savings. She was the third POV character and a good one for showing the life and times. The local sheriff was a good guy, too. He was one of the few officials who could not be bought by the Pembertons. Assorted loggers were featured as well, serving, as someone said, as a kind of Greek chorus. They reflected the highlander culture and language while offering commentary on the conflicts they witnessed. And with the story’s many conflicts, they had plenty to discuss. But I won’t (in the interest of spoiler forbearance).

Despite seeing each successive problem a mile away, and venturing a good guess about what the reactions would be (it’s checkers, not chess), Rash keeps us turning the pages. He’s a good story-teller and has a very fluid style. I liked how he painted the landscape with his words. He also gave a strong sense of how even very simple lives involve specialized survivor skills that you and I probably don’t possess. For instance, Rachel had to know where to look for ginseng, how to keep the bees, and how to patch a chimney. These were as important to her as knowing the mot juste would be to a Valley girl for social survival.

The one thing I didn’t care for in an otherwise great book was how little internal conflict there was once Serena’s relentlessness was established. She ceased to be anything more than an Ayn Rand character raised to the 666th power. There are plenty of other things to like, though. If the following quote by Rash in my edition’s P.S. section is an indication, maybe the main character was the region and its shared humanity all along. Serena was just its foil.

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of literature is how the most intensely “regional” literature is also often the most universal. There’s no better example of this than Joyce’s Ulysses. The best regional writers are like farmers drilling for water; if they bore deep and true enough into that particular place, beyond the surface of local color, they tap into universal correspondences, what Jung called the collective unconscious. Faulkner’s Mississippi, Munro’s Ontario, and Marquez’s Colombia are exotic, and they are also familiar.

¹I was tempted to shorten this pair to S&P, but I suspect they need no further insinuation as symbols of big business as it’s purported to be, rapacious and predatory.
Profile Image for JimZ.
1,061 reviews495 followers
March 8, 2021
If this had been the first work by Ron Rash I had read, I do not think I would have gone on to continue to read Ron Rash. The story was OK and I read it in one day…I suppose that is evidence that it must have interested me, and it did…but again. Not sure I would read him again because there were a number of plot lines left unanswered in this long novel.

To wit regarding unanswered plot lines, and the first one is the most important:
• What bug did Serena have up her ass to be so cold-blooded? So she lost her family in the flu pandemic of 1918. So did a lot of other people. That didn’t turn them into homicidal maniacs.
• What was with the crazy evangelist McIntyre? There was a snake that landed on him and he thereafter became mute and was given electroshock treatment and he came back to the novel near the end and said one sentence…something like the world was going to end. What was that all about? That character was being developed by Rash, and he was halfway interesting, but it’s like Rash lost interest in him halfway through the novel and let him go….

The book started out good but then the middle half of the book just dragged….one person getting picked off here…another one picked off there. I knew what was coming and got tired of the murders by Galloway…like, get the point already.

What I have going against me is that apparently lots and lots of other people loved this novel. I had the paperback edition, and it was in its 8th or 9th print run. Accolades from Anna Quindlen, Lee Smith, New Yorker, Salon, Washington Post Book World, Jay Parini, Huffington Post, Pat Conroy…

A plus: He certainly knew a lot about the flora and fauna of the Appalachians. That was interesting…all the different herbs that could be made into medicines and such.

Another plus: it was interesting to learn and to be reminded of how mankind can denude a forest, and destroy it, with the sole intent to make money. And how very dangerous the logging industry was (and for all I know still is).

In closing, I did read two of his short story collections before reading this novel and I like them— ‘In the Valley’ [4 stars] and ‘Burning Bright’ [3.5 stars], and I got other suggestions from DR friends who very much liked him (which also impressed me…I knew he must be good). I will continue to read him. But it is based on his other works, not this one.
End of story. Timber. 😑

Some reviews (so many so many):
Profile Image for Agnieszka.
258 reviews932 followers
September 9, 2017
Not much to say about that one from me. Well-paced, set in North Caroline during the great depression story depictures title charackter who, alongside with her husband, is to create a timber empire. I thought the novel was very well written, with great sense of time and place but unfortunately the main protagonist left me unimpressed.

Comparisons to Steinbeck’s or McCarthy’s epic novels feel a bit exaggerated to me. Serena lacks that truth and depth and dark essence flowing through novels of mentioned above. I remember Cathy from East of Eden and how I felt about her. Serena left me cold. Manipulative skills and lack of moral scrupules was perhaps to help her to deal with unfriendly and mainly man’s world but unfortunately didn’t lend her complexity and psychological depth. Yes, I found Serena rotten to the core but instead of reading about her riding with her eagle, agreed, very scenic but mostly laughable, I wanted to know what made her, what shaped her the way she was. Her figure remained undeveloped to the very end. Yes, demonic and dangerous yet somehow grotesque. I counted for more multifaceted personality. I counted for some emotion there. Saddly, she felt awfully one-dimensional to me. And the scene where her eagle was fighting with huge lizard, sorry guys, it made me cringe.

Ok, I get it, Pemberton thought with his dick rather when he hooked up with her but their relationship lacks of ember, and I’m not thinking about their bedroom activity. They are really worth each other, with one notable exception, and on the way to their goal they leave quite a pile of corpses. But there is a strange coldness I feel about them, they are evil and vicious, and yet I didn’t give a damn about them. It should feel outrageous and repugnant, I should be furious or disgusted or something meanwhile reading about murderous duo I was betting who would be the next prey to them. To have all bad guys established there is a twisted sidekick of Serena yet. And to balance the story there is a local sheriff, the last man standing in this wide-open town and oppressed innocents in persons of Rachel, previous Pemberson’s mistress and her little son, Jacob.

I liked historic setting; socio-economic background and life in logging camp felt very reliably to me; predatory exploitation, greed, scorched earth policy and no-holds-barred as a general rule both in life and business shown outright and without sentimentality. I enjoyed scenery, beautiful yet harsh landscape; descriptions of wild, primary nature with its dangers: venomous snakes, bears, cougars even, also depiction of working conditions and exploitation of woodsmen were picturesque and very apt. Secondary characters quite well drawn, also using group of woodcutters as a kind of greek chorus commenting events seemed rather fine device. I only can imagine how the novel could be if only Serena hadn't been so cartoonish, if in her portrait had been less silk and lace and more psychological truth, if she hadn’t felt as provincial lady Makbeth. Regrettably, the weakest point in Serena was just Serena.
Profile Image for Robin.
493 reviews2,723 followers
September 22, 2022
This was like a night at the opera.

I actually love opera, if it's on stage, with a score by Mozart, a dazzling soprano bedecked in an outrageous costume, and staging so over-the-top that you feel glad to be alive. Thrilled to be participating in the human experience, particularly the artful one. Even during the mandatory naptime. I love that part too. It happens at the 2/3 mark, usually, and has no bearing on the quality of the music. It speaks more to the depth of my relaxation. Oh, opera.

Yes, if the opera is on stage, and I've paid for a ticket, and I'm all glammed up and sitting on a velvet seat, I'm in.

Not so much when I open the pages of a book. Melodrama is at home in the opera. But in literature, it makes my skin crawl.

This novel is jacked to the hilt with melodrama, and so it didn't hit the right notes for me. The star of the show, a Lady Macbeth of sorts, Serena, is as evil as any operatic villain. Mean and psychopathic for no reason. Just an awful, bloodless human. Her husband George, the Macbeth character, is also void of morals and for whatever reason does pretty much everything his wife tells him. Together, they chop down nearly every tree in Appalachia, and woe to anyone who gets in their way.

Serena, riding an Arabian horse with her trained eagle on her shoulder, should be singing an aria in an opulent ballgown. That eagle, when pitted against a Komodo dragon, deserves a part, too. Perhaps a beaky tenor? And the outlandish ending, with a death by five different means brought down on a single principal character, is worthy of a full orchestra and a chorus of fifty, with pyrotechnics blasting off in the background.

I know, I'm being silly and some might say... theatrical. Sorry. Aren't drama queens annoying??
Profile Image for Barbara.
285 reviews244 followers
February 4, 2021
This novel nicely fits into the Southern Gothic genre. The setting is the mountains of western North Carolina. The main characters and many less important players are corrupt, violent and villainous.

Serena is a strong, intelligent woman; she is also a sociopath. She is the female equivalent of John Boyne's character Maurice Swift. Both are ruthless personalities that are fascinating to read about but not ones you would care to have as acquaintances.

Serena and her husband George Pemberton own and operate a lumber company. Their interest is in gaining more power through expansion, and they will do so any way they can, regardless of laws. Any person who doesn't assist them or help them sufficiently is eliminated. Loyalty and compassion are for the less ambitious.

In contrast to these nefarious capitalists is the beauty of the landscape. Mountain after mountain stripped of centuries old trees with no regard for the devastation of the wildlife, the pollution and erosion, the future impact. (Richard Powers, please don't read this book.) Reforestation? Never considered. The government's desire to acquire land for the Great Smokey Mountain National Park during these Depression years was the only obstacle to the Pemberton's insatiable pursuit.

This was a suspenseful and surprisingly informative novel. The evil characters, the danger to the loggers, the beauty of the landscape all had appeal on multiple levels. I am anxious to read other novels by Rash.

Profile Image for Carmel Hanes.
Author 1 book136 followers
October 19, 2020
A wonderful character study of a woman we all hope never to meet in real life. I've seen lots of despicable male characters in novels, but it's more rare to find a woman that's so easy to despise.

"The most beautiful creatures are so often the most injurious. The tiger, for instance, or the black widow spider."
"I would argue that's part of their beauty," Serena said."

"Pardon me." he said. "I should never have doubted your knowledge of venom."

Statements that capture the inner nature of an outside beauty--a cesspool of self-interest and entitlement. The animals Serena collects (an eagle and Arabian horse) are symbols of strength, stamina, royalty, longevity, and superiority. She surrounds herself with those who would do her bidding and be her "equal", including her husband, Pemberton.

She said to tell you she thought you the one man ever strong enough to be her equaling.."

Expressing a desire to "live only in the present", Serena cuts ties with her childhood memories by burning the family house down after losing her parents and siblings to flu. She gives no credit to good fortune when she is the only survivor, claiming she simply refused to die, a foretelling of the narcissistic sense of her own power that directs her life from then on. While Rachel, another character in the novel laments that "what made losing someone you loved more bearable was not remembering them but forgetting.", she still was capable of love even when she resisted it for her own preservation. Serena appears to have embraced the notion of forgetting, if she had ever been capable of love (there is some doubt regarding this).

Much of the novel centers around logging practices and the conflict between saving trees as part of a national park and clear cutting for profit. It takes place during the depression when jobs were hard to come by, and men did what they could to survive and help their families. This was not a clean world, not in body or in soul, and many felt the conflict between what they were doing and what was "right". The men working for the Pembertons saw much, but said little, trying to survive in a challenging world, forced to turn a blind eye as those suddenly deemed "enemy" continued to fall around them.

"Everything in the world has its natural place, and if you take something out or put something in that ought not to be out or in, everything gets lopsided and out of sorts."

This they knew, but most were forced to shackle their conscience in favor of survival. And so they cut, and remained silent. A story that blends the conflict of ideologies and desires with the relentless pursuit of power and fortune, despite all costs.

The only picture taken of Serena resulted in her face being blurred gray and featureless. Unknowable, without identity, like the outcomes to the lands she ravaged, "like living in a graveyard"; although this one was human. It made me wonder what got taken out or put in to her as she began life to get her so "lopsided and out of sorts".

She makes me shiver.
Profile Image for Carol.
1,370 reviews2,156 followers
March 28, 2015
Warning! If you do not like ruthless, greedy and revengeful characters, you will not like the story of timber magnates Serena and George Pemberton as they are the epitome of evil to everyone and everything they touch. Set in 1929 North Carolina, they proceed to strip the land with disregard to the environment, treatment of animals or anyone who gets in their way. Starts out with a bang and has a thrilling ending!

Update: March 28, 2015

Holy Crap!.....just watched the movie.....Be prepared for a completely different, but still shocker of an ending. Liked it better than the book!

Profile Image for Shelby *trains flying monkeys*.
1,605 reviews5,986 followers
November 4, 2014
Probably one of the most evil women characters that I've read about. The thing is you can't look away..you have to see what Serena is going to do next. Set in North Carolina before the Great Smokey Mtns. became a state park. Tells the story of greed and what some people will do to see their means to an end. Wonderful book filled with characters that will stay with you.
Profile Image for Teresa.
Author 8 books817 followers
March 8, 2021
I found it unfortunate to be reading a copy with the movie cover, as I couldn’t help seeing the depicted actors in their Pemberton roles as I read. I recently saw Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone and she’s wonderful, but Bradley Cooper? I’ll refrain from giving my opinion on him.

Early on I wasn’t sure this book was for me, but I’m glad I continued. I ended up appreciating many of its elements, including the Greek chorus of workers. I had to warm up to it, though; maybe that had something to do with the amount of characters in general.

Rash’s plot contains a few lines that are almost red-herrings, likely to amplify its thrillerish aspects, but they don’t overwhelm and aren’t gimmicky. The sections with Rachel are of the best writing, despite her child being the best behaved toddler in the entire universe. The scene of an ill Rachel carrying her ill baby to town is especially beautiful and lyrical.

Readers are allowed into Rachel’s head, inner narration we only get sometimes with Pemberton (why doesn’t Serena ever call him by his first name?) and never with Serena, which is arguably a good thing. It’s certainly a conscious choice that helps turn Serena into a mythical, powerful figure; but I did hope I’d find out more of why she is the way she is. It can’t just be losing her family in a pandemic, so I guess she was born “that way.”

Speaking of Serena, her wickedness is about all I knew of this book going into it. But I found her husband just as bad: he’s gotten his hands “dirty;” he’s hired and tolerated Galloway; he’s complicit in their doings, only trying to ease one situation because of a blood relationship, which doesn’t exonerate him for the rest. I thought of him and Serena as the Macbeths. And as odd as it might seem, in the coda I pictured her as Elizabeth I.
Profile Image for Arah-Lynda.
337 reviews532 followers
August 13, 2016
Did you ever read the right book at the wrong time? Such is my Serena.

On the heels of my previous read, a forever favourite,The Secret History, still occupying way too many rooms in my head, this one felt barren, almost raw, like no one threw a rug on the floor. It all happens hard and fast.

In 1929 newlyweds George and Serena travel from Boston to the North Carolina Mountains where they plan to harvest timber and create an empire. The terrain is relentless, the characters rough and tumble and the story serves up greed, sex, deceit, death by logging, betrayal and murder.

I should have loved it, but truth be told that while I recognized what a great story this was, I somehow felt disconnected. Not there. I mean, even the eagle failed to pull me in and I love birds of prey.

Okay one other thing; shortly after I had begun reading this I had occasion to read the back flap, heretofore undone. It was early on for me and while I knew there was something going on I did not, necessarily, want to know exactly what. That put me off. I do not think it should be there.

A good story that failed to hold me in its grip. This time.

What was that that Alan Watts said, oh yeah: “Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.”
Profile Image for Britany.
991 reviews433 followers
July 6, 2017
Serena is a slow burn of a novel brimming with darkness and intrigue.

It's 1929 in Waynesville, NC and plowing trees for timber is a booming industry. The Pemberton's reign supreme and negotiage one deal after another to claim the top spot. Serena especially brings an extra layer of female power by leading the men, wearing pants! and training a pet eagle to hunt rattlesnakes. She is one of the most developed characters, I've ever met in a book and I couldn't get enough of her conniving and brutal ways. She takes over Pemberton's life and quickly starts making decisions to get exactly what she wants-- complete with a one-handed lackey!

This book was wonderfully written, the atmosphere of the time period set against the bleakness of the sawed timer was beautifully tragic. In addition to the barren landscape, Serena finds herself in the same predicament as the landscape that she has claimed. The author really made you work for this book, slowly introducing and destroying the environment that he created. I really enjoyed reading this book, more of a slow burn than a page-turner. I couldn't wait to see what Serena would do next, the only downside was that the author didn't give us too much in her background, but ultimately it wasn't necessary. I especially loved the Coda, as there is nothing greater than the sweet taste of revenge.
Profile Image for Phrynne.
3,322 reviews2,143 followers
February 23, 2018
My first book by this author and possibly not the best one for me to have started with. I am going straight down the middle on whether I liked it or not!

The writing was beautiful, the background interesting and informative and the story was frequently tense and exciting. However the characters were awful, Serena in particular. A really nasty and amoral woman married to an equally unpleasant man. Nothing to like there. Also I have a history of not enjoying books where bad things happen to animals. This dates back to Black Beauty, read as a teenager, so it is pretty much a fixed part of my personality now. By the time I had finished skimming all the animal cruelty in this book I had probably missed a huge chunk of it.

So I guess this one was not really for me. Sorry to all Rash fans and I promise to try another of his books soon.
Profile Image for Lara.
439 reviews99 followers
November 21, 2008
I would give this three & a half stars if I had that option. Sadly, I do not. I feel a bit shmuckish for not enjoying this book more than I did, and after some serious pondering I have come to the conclusion that I would probably have loved this book if I had a Y chromosome.


It's not that it isn't entertaining. I just couldn't really get myself to give two craps about any of the characters. And I couldn't suspend my disbelief enough to find any of it realistic. (I mean, seriously? They are so in love that they have crazy awesome sex every single night, and not one single night is one of them like, "Uh, not tonight, honey, I have a headache"? Yeah, right.

But see, if I were male, I would totally dig that.

Not to mention the immediate knife-fight scene and all the other manly punches throughout the book.

I said earlier that it's not that it isn't entertaining, and I meant it. I also think it's not that the book is poorly written - because, damn, there are some incredible passages. (Don't believe me? Skip to page 71, the very last paragraph, and read down mid-way to page 72. Bears have never EVER seemed so real.)

What? You don't want to go find that passage? fine. I'll give you a teaser sentence:
"He smelled the bear, the musk of its fur, its spilling blood, smelled the forest itself in the earthy linger of acorn each time the bear exhaled."

Ultimately, I really do think it comes down to my general femaleness. We'll test this out when I wrap this book up and give it to my dad for Christmas to see what he thinks of it.

And - lest you think I'm a total cheapskate - my dad is impossible to buy for, partly because if he wants anything he buys it for himself, and partly because he doesn't want me or my sister to spend much money on him. Even if he doesn't love the book, he'll love the fact that I got it for free and then re-gifted it to him.

But I digress.

Profile Image for judy.
947 reviews18 followers
December 9, 2010
I'm glad so many people loved this book because I certainly didn't. Early on I suspected that Serena was an escapee from Ayn Rand. I also pegged her as a really nasty piece of work--amoral, megalomaniac--take your pick. It's not hard to guess how the story will unfold but by page 185 hardly anything has happened (except my loathing for this book). The characters seem stereotyped and wooden. For a Southern book, descriptions of the landscape and terrain are pathetic. Very odd because if this book has a moral, it's "nature good, destroying natural resources bad". Unfortunately, it reminds me of a story my daughter wrote in junior high. The entire thing was pages of "she went there and did that--then she went (wherever) and did that" etc. etc. No doubt the book gets better (my daughter's writing did in high school)but I'm about half way through and I can't take anymore. I really did try.
Profile Image for Brian.
Author 1 book1,023 followers
April 2, 2014
A beautifully crafted novel of a 20th century Lady Macbethian protagonist with eyes on the world's timber, starting in rural North Carolina. Rash paints a vivid picture of a lumber camp and utilizes the sawyers perfectly as the Greek chorus element in the story. The author also has a deft hand at creating characters - both male and female - even minor actors in the story have the heft of an author who knows the craft. The coda presented a plausible and fine ending, but I would have enjoyed the book just as much without it.

Highly recommended - I will definitely be reading more of Rash's work. Thanks again to Anthony Vacca for the recommendation.
Profile Image for Judith E.
569 reviews193 followers
October 8, 2020
I hope Ron Rash had as much fun writing evilness as I did reading evilness! Land grabbing, power hungry, and jealous revengeful personalities abound in this one.

Rash’s plot unfolds in the North Carolina forests and the reader gets a full dose of the landscape and the hard scrabble times of the early 1900’s. I enjoyed how the author inserted comments through the voices of the loggers as they watched the dastardly deeds unfold, and there are both wise and afflicted characters in that group.

Great Southern lit with snakes, preachers, clairvoyants and, of course, evilness.
Profile Image for LA Cantrell.
424 reviews553 followers
August 14, 2018
EDIT: Y'all, this is on sale for $1.99 today!!! GET IT!!!!
Serena is wickedly good! I first read this dark adventure back in 2009 and have read and listened to it twice since then (TIP: the audio version is not very well done.. read it the old fashioned way). I even built a literary scavenger hunt based on the book out in the dark woods behind my house - moonshine, snakes, a bone-handled knife, and Paris Green rat poison all came into play. Finally, I'm writing a review - six years late!

First off, if you have seen the movie version of this incredible tale, erase it from your mind. The screenwriter and the director de-fanged, de-clawed, and decimated the story. Shame on them! I know that authors give up their screen rights so that they can see how other talented people interpret their work, but I feel awful for Ron Rash. The character in the novel "Serena" is akin to Glenn Close's crazy woman in "Fatal Attraction" and that of Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct." They are beautiful, brilliant, accomplished, and allow nothing to get in the way of their goals. Jennifer Lawrence could have totally killed (bad pun) this role, but the screenplay gave her nothing to work with. Bless her heart.

That said, if you enjoy complex, strong, and sociopathic female leads, then you will really enjoy this novel. The only thing is, when the book opens, Serena is sound asleep on a train as it lumbers through the mountains of late 1920s North Carolina. Sweet faced, she frowns in her sleep and mumbles wordlessly - perhaps experiencing some mild nightmare. Ron Rash lets us see her beauty in that opening without a hint of the tendrils of evil within her. When she wakes and alights from the train, unlike other ladies of the time period, she does not need "help" getting off and stepping over to the platform. When she meets the business partners of her new husband, she reaches out to grasp a firm hand and shake her introduction. As a female reader, boom! I thought - she is a bit of a 1920s iconoclast! She doesn't simper around like a passive little woman reliant on men. I liked her!

When there is an argument and altercation on the train platform, she calmly steps forward and tells the young woman there - pregnant by Serena's new husband - that their relationship is now over and to expect nothing of them. Serena doesn't pout or shout. She accepts that he got somebody pregnant, but that was BEFORE. Now that that time period is gone, she is ready to focus on the now and the future. She states that there is no longer a "before."

Her new husband, George Pemberton, is a timber man, and having grown up in timber camps in Colorado - owned by her father - Serena can ride the ridges on her mighty stallion, estimate board length on trees with no measuring tape, and tame dangerous creatures. She wears pants instead of skirts, holds her own with investors, and doesn't just submit to her husband's attentions - she annihilates them both with their lovemaking. He is her now and her future, and she is righteously devoted to him. Until he falters just a bit..

One thing that I love about Ron Rash's characters is that there is huge depth and nuance to them. Serena proves herself to be a sociopath in this story, but before we see that, there are traits to be admired. There is enough mention of her past that we wonder how it was she came to be who she is. She undergoes heartbreak, too, that makes us sympathetic.

As you may have read in reviews, Rash sets the book up on the structure of an Elizabethan play, complete with four acts and a "chorus" of silly, but very insightful timber workers who offer some comedic relief to the tale but also dispense observations the reader might have missed. In various reviews, the character Serena is compared a good bit with Lady MacBeth, and that does fit, however I see her as Medea. In fact, early in the book, Serena quotes lines from Euripedes' Medea - blatant foreshadowing, but only for those who have read and remember the tale written somewhere around 400BC. I won't expound on it because it is a spoiler, but after you've read Serena, pull up a link on the play and see if you don't find Serena right there in the middle of it.

For the squeamish reader, remember that the setting is in the North Carolina mountains of 1929 or so. There is hunting, and then there is hunting by people with no moral compass whatsoever. There is deforestation and rape of the land. You will not read any blatant animal abuse like A Feast of Snakes, but what ugliness does occur highlights the total disregard for life that Serena and another character or two displays. Nothing will stop her.

That's the ugly stuff. On the beautiful side, nobody can describe the gorgeousness of tree leaf, the shape of a mountain range, the glory in a brook trout like Ron Rash. He has won numerous awards for his poetry, and you can not just see but feel that lyricism in his descriptions. There are broad metaphors you won't notice the first time you read this because you'll be overcome with intrigue and the visual descriptions. It was impossible to put this book down the first time I read it.

The cast of characters includes a selfless sheriff, a husband who worships his evil wife, a blind old woman with the gift of foresight, a young mother ready to fight for her baby, and a windbag doctor who is the only one of the cast to initially diagnose Serena as her true self. There are more characters who we meet and come to truly invest in, even though they are not primary to the plot. They do little things like providing small Christmas gifts for the downtrodden camp workers. One goes out of his way to buy his ailing mother her favorite candy, then rushes to get her a chilled cup of water to wash the sweets down. One, trying to please a baby boy, buys him a set of marbles - totally oblivious that one doesn't give choking hazards to a tot. Rash doesn't tell you - "this guy is good; this guy is bad" - you judge by their actions what the characters hold inside.

Five stars and on my favorites shelf, I've read this three times now and seriously, after writing up this review, I feel like reading it again.

I found this abstract of Lesleigh Jones' and now want to go back to read the Greek story of Clytemnestra. I knew about the Medea reference, of course, but this other is fascinating!
Serena and her Classical Predecessors
Presentation #1 Abstract

Serena, in Ron Rash’s novel Serena, combines the masculine rationality of Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra with the sorcery of Euripides’ Medea in order to portray the terrifying consequences of a skilled woman who transgresses societal norms. Ron Rash has stated that he based his novel Serena on Greek tragedy. This paper evaluates the eponymous character, Serena, and her similarities to two iconic tragic heroines (or villains), Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra and Euripides’ Medea. Serena combines Clytemnestra’s masculine rationality with Medea’s sorcery through her ruthless business practices and supernatural image. Doctor Cheney observes that she, unlike other women, does not “lack the male’s analytical skills,” and when she is pregnant Serena supposedly “bares her belly to the moon, soaking in all its power” (Rash 34, 201). Many in today’s society many accept rational or mystical women. By combining Clytemnestra and Medea’s attributes, Rash modernizes the plot and inspires the same horror. Clytemnestra and Medea’s crimes are appalling because they go against the accepted view of female behavior. While Clytemnestra’s husband, Agamemnon, is away at Troy she takes over his position of authority and kills him when he returns. Medea tears her brother limb from limb to help Jason and kills her children when Jason leaves her. The first time Serena appears, she is wearing “pants and boots instead of a dress,” and she eventually controls her husband’s company, kills her husband, has a miscarriage, and tries to kill her husband’s child (Rash 5). Serena’s personality, skills, goals, and achievements neatly combine Clytemnestra and Medea’s.
At-A-Glance Bios- Presenter #1

Lesleigh Jones received her BA in English and biblical languages from Houston Baptist University and is now a candidate for the MA in classics at UMass Boston pursuing the Greek and Latin track. She became interested in Appalachian literature through her husband, Joshua Jones, a regional poet from Virginia who is now a candidate for the MFA in poetry at UMass Boston.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
350 reviews395 followers
February 20, 2017
I developed another Rash. This one took me back to the mountains of North Carolina. However, instead of meeting the good-hearted people of The Cove, I was introduced to some of the most ruthless characters in literature.

Serena and George Pemberton have never met a living creature (human, animal, or plant) they do not wish to dominate (or destroy) for their own gain. With an element of suspense, Rash weaves a tale of ambition gone awry.

Highly recomended for fans of southern literature, those who like strong female characaters, or those who just like a darn good story.

4.5 stars.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,854 followers
May 25, 2015
Carl Orff’s famous 1937 composition Carmina Burana opens with the epic ‘O Fortuna’. It’s so enormous, spectacular, all-encompassing that the listener can scarcely breathe. The tension and power lead to flights of imagination such that the music inhabits the soul.

Maestro Marin Allsop tells us Carmina Burana is “all about fate and fortune and how that impacts our lives, and also the hushed quality after this enormous opening. You know, suddenly, let me tell you a secret. Come closer.”

Oh, but what better description could there be for Ron Rash’s Serena? Rash’s storytelling, though more tempered than the excesses of O Fortuna, is no less powerful. And Serena is certainly all about fate and fortune.

Consider his opening paragraph:
“When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.”

And the chorus rises in a wave of sound as the tide of fate and fortune pulls the reader into this Shakespearean tragedy.

The story opens in 1929 and continues into the early ‘30s, a time when America’s greed and excess plunged the nation into economic and social despair. Serena and George Pemberton, newly wed after a blink-of-an-eye courtship, arrive in the backwoods of North Carolina to claim their fortune in timber.

Serena, so brilliantly named for the icy cool exterior that hides the smolder within, enters the Great Hall of Female Antiheroes, standing alongside Lady Macbeth, Cathy Earnshaw, Morgan LeFay, and Medea. My strongest criticism of this novel is that Rash never gives us a cause to feel for Serena—he hints only at some disaster that befell Serena as a younger woman in Colorado—so we have no idea how this exceptionally learned woman achieved her schooling or her scales. She becomes more evil as the story continues, treading a very fine line between compelling character and Cruella de Ville caricature.

But. Oh. I was so caught up in, delighted and horrified by this novel, by Rash’s sumptuous writing and his wicked good storytelling, I would have followed him anywhere. It was sheer delight to unwrap the layers of his narrative, like a birthday present. Rachel’s Mother Earth gentleness and the gut-churning tension of her plight contrasts brilliantly with Serena’s rape and pillage of the Appalachian forests and her quest for absolute power. The Greek chorus of workers centers the action in time and place, allowing the reader to take a deep breath in between the cymbal-clashing action. George Pemberton embodies man’s weaknesses of the flesh and heart. He tips the scales as his loyalties shift this way and that, his moral compass swinging wildly from True North.

Rash is a writer of place, his gorgeous language conveying the lore, loveliness, and dangers of Appalachia like a song. But his characters are so ripe, hot red blood coursing through flesh, bones brittle and white, that they lead you inexorably on, deeper into the forest as it burns and crashes behind you. Serena has an enormous cast, shifting, changing, fighting, dying, but each character is so clearly defined and richly-drawn that there is no mistaking their vitality or purpose to the plot. And the plot: irresistible. Rash creates a primal parable of greed and power, weaving in themes of environmentalism, poverty and political will, that borders on melodrama, but with such precise skill that, like Orff’s O Fortuna, your senses are elevated to the rafters and beyond. It’s a literary high.
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