Book Review: Serena

Well it happened again, despite my belief that it wouldn’t. Two books down – 50 to go (in as many weeks). This week’s reading was Ron Rash’s historical fiction novel Serena. In keeping with our monthly theme of books that have been made into Movies/TV Shows, Serena is a movie (starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper), which is set to release this fall!


Wow! What a shocker of a novel! This book was not, in any way, what I expected!! Please be advised that this book review may contain some SPOILERS, but I will do my best to avoid giving away any major plot points that will ruin the shocking ending to this book.

Ron Rash’s novel, Serena, takes place in the late 1920s in the woods of Western North Carolina. The novel is about a wealthy timber family, the Pembertons, who own controlling shares in the Boston Lumber Company. The story has many intricate plot lines, including the daily business of a lumber company, the tension between the company and the US Government, which is seeking to acquisition the property for a national park, and the life of Rebecca Harmond, a young girl pregnant with (and later mother to) Pemberton’s child.

When we first meet Serena Pemberton, her sorted past, un-lady-like demeanor and shrewd business sense drive the plot lines along. While she’s not a particularly likeable character, you find yourself rooting for her, much in the way of the stereotypical anti-heroine. It isn’t until midway through the novel that we begin to wonder about her history, and by the end of the novel, you’re begging for her demise. Her charming disposition covers up a multitude of well-hidden sins. She is able to seduce people into her power, bend them to her will, and then discard of them in the most terrifying of ways.

Rash does a beautiful job telling his story. His characterization makes the novel seem less like a story, and more like a realistic event. As a reader, I felt like I knew the characters – from the power-hungry Pembertons, to the pitiable Rebecca, to the minor workers at the lumber company. The time and attention Rash gives to secondary characters – like the workers – creates the sense of belonging, and helps give an alternative perspective to the story. Sarcastic Ross, philosophical Snipes and religious McIntire all contribute to the feeling of being part of the lumber company – we know these men, and trust their judgments. I had expected the story to be told through the title character’s point of view, and yet we never enter her mind throughout the whole novel. The novel is spent exploring the points of view of everyone she comes into contact with – contributing to various opinions and conflicting ideas about our protagonist (is she a beautiful woman? a witch? the devil herself?).

It’s hard to describe this story and do it justice. Essentially, a whole lot of nothing happens in the first two-thirds of the book. Rash spends his time developing his characters and the plot – so much so that we can identify with them, and understand their actions. It isn’t until we begin to truly comprehend what Serena’s actions are leading to – and we do, even if we choose to ignore it – that we realize how brilliantly Rash has set up his story. He plants seeds of doubt, seeds of distrust – and when the seeds bloom, they run wild.

Serena is beautifully written and captivating – I was left feeling surprised, thrilled and vindicated. Rash hit the ball out of the park with this one. I happen to be a fan of historical fiction, so this book was right up my alley, but if you’re not necessarily a reader of historical fiction, give this one a chance! It has enough intrigue, mystery and action to keep anyone on their toes!



September 14, 2013 · 11:56 am

2 responses to “Book Review: Serena

  1. kerstin

    If you’re a fan of historical fiction, I recommend reading In Harm’s Way in November or July, though July might be better for the theme. It’s by Doug Stanton and it’s about the final – secret – voyage of the USS Indianapolis to deliver the uranium for the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, her sinking by a Japanese sub and the tale of her survivors while they awaited rescue. And -despite it’s length – it’s a really quick read.

  2. Kathleen

    Wow, you hit the nail on the head with your review. I just finished the book last night and I stayed awake thinking about it for a long time. It was thrilling. Especially the ending, so different from most depictions of women and their relationships. It was beautifully written, poetic with the lost language of the highlanders. Thank you for this recommendation, I hope the movie can capture the twisted psychology. Starting the great gatsby today, this is fun!!!!!!!!

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