Deep in the Tamarack Lake area of the Adirondacks, nine people gather to celebrate the renowned but controversial brain surgeon Carter Cole's 1936 annual Fourth of July
celebration. Here at Rangeview - the largest of the rough-hewn log camps - Carter and his wife, Evelyn, dine with their eminently well-connected friends, the men and their wives who have made their fortune buying and selling stocks and bonds throughout the roaring 1920s.
Also in attendance is the Coles' adopted child, Vanessa. Married and divorced twice
by the tender age of thirty, Vanessa has garnered a reputation as a disconsolate and rather rebellious girl who seems to be more at home walking along the rocky seashores of Rangeview and enjoying the wind sifting through the tall pines behind her than joining her parents in their jingoistic festivities.
Beautiful, provocative and intriguingly unpredictable, for months now Vanessa has been unhappy, partly because she's realized that this scene with her parents and their well-to-do friends is just not hers anymore. Yet the last thing Vanessa expects is to meet on this night the dashing and virile Gordon Groves, who
flies out of the sky in his four-year-old seaplane and lands on the lake right in front of her.
Known mostly for his graphic work – woodcuts, etchings, prints - Groves has been increasingly known, both in the United States and the Soviet Union, for his radical leftist politics. Although happily married to his lovely wife, Alicia, and a devoted father to his two young boys, Groves also has a reputation for being difficult and temperamental. Although he's liked by many of the service workers on the Tamarack Estates, they're also wary of him, mainly because of his violent temper and propensity for causing trouble.
In this world where the mountains and forests and lakes are held for the exclusive use and enjoyment of members and their guests, Vanessa and Jordan prove to be instantly attracted to each other, both outsiders and proving to be the mirror image of
one another. On this Fourth of July night, as her cheek nearly brushes him and then she pulls away, neither of them can deny the exciting sexual energy that passes between them.
In typically rebellious fashion, Vanessa begs Jordan to take her for a ride in the airplane.
He does, and then lets her fly too close to the mountains. But it is an unusual request from Vanessa regarding her late father's ashes that really sets Jordan's teeth on edge. Ultimately there's something inside Vanessa, a crucial defining part of her mind, that is permanently broken and makes her dangerous to anyone foolish enough to get close to her.
Feeling comfortable enough to share their anxieties and worries in advance, the couple becomes caught up in a face-off, one made even worse by Vanessa's feeling that her mother is about to cut her daughter off from her lawful inheritance. All is cast in a furtive glow as Vanessa suddenly develops
an insane need to punish her mother, to stop her from taking over her life and shutting her out from what she considers
As Vanessa's mysterious and illegitimate origins gradually unfurl, Jordan becomes haunted by his infidelities over the years on his numerous trips overseas. He's certainly been far from the loyal husband to Alicia,
but although he has slept with other women, he has taken care not to fall in love with them.
He has never felt guilt for indulging himself in what he regarded as harmless flirtations and brief sexual liaisons that never went anywhere dangerous.
Meanwhile, the poor and emotionally neglected Alicia has fallen into the arms of the somber Tamarack guide Hubert St. Germain, who realizes that there is a price to pay for knowing someone as venerated in the community as Alicia. A man abandoned and lonely but always forbiddingly stoical with low animal spirits, Hubert is stubbornly independent of influence of others – especially in matters of right and wrong.
As these three characters circle each other, author Russell Banks fills his pages with shame and remorse, passionate love affairs, and broken-down marriages. Deeply suggestive of an old-style movie melodrama, the chapters of The Reserve overflow with lush descriptions of the picaresque landscapes, the lifestyles of these wealthy and privileged people, and the historical backdrop of the 1930s, including the Spanish Civil War and the Hindenburg zeppelin flights across the Atlantic.
In true cinematic fashion, the characters do remain types: the misunderstood artist, the brooding mountain guide, the beautiful but half-crazy young heiress, and the wealthy matriarch who holds a long-buried family secret.
Everyone finds themselves caught up in over-the-top coincidences involving a kidnapping, a fatal
shotgun accident, and a secret set of lurid photos, all climaxing in a fatal fire that changes the course of these characters' lives forever.