A left-wing artist tangles with a troubled heiress in this characteristically somber, class-conscious novel from Banks (The Darling, 2004, etc.).
On the evening of July 4, 1936, at their luxurious summer camp in a privately owned Adirondacks wilderness reserve, Carter and Evelyn Cole get a visit from Jordan Groves, a Rockwell Kent–like creator of woodcuts, prints and etchings. Though Jordan’s a notorious Red who has little use for people like the Coles (he’s there to look at some paintings), it’s hard for this inveterate womanizer to resist the attentions of their beautiful daughter Vanessa, twice-divorced veteran of many scandalous love affairs. She is also, Banks reveals not long into the narrative (with a shockingly unexpected image of Evelyn Cole bound and gagged by her daughter), quite crazy. After Dr. Cole has a fatal heart attack the night of Jordan’s visit, Vanessa becomes convinced (not without reason) that her mother plans to have her committed once again to a discreet Swiss asylum. So Vanessa ties up Mom and implausibly manages to enlist the help of Hubert St. Germain, one of the many locals whose ill-paid seasonal work comes from serving the summer people. Hubert is also the lover of Jordan’s discontented wife Alicia, and learning of their affair drives the artist into Vanessa’s arms—though not before her mother has been disposed of in a shotgun accident. Dark hints that Dr. Cole sexually abused Vanessa have been freely scattered, but also cast into serious doubt. A catastrophic fire covers up the evidence of Evelyn’s demise, and Hubert gets off scot-free despite having confessed his involvement to the odious manager of the Reserve’s country club. Jordan and Vanessa meet their separate just deserts in ends that owe more to history (the Hindenburg crash, the Spanish Civil War) than the author’s imagination.
Banks is one of America’s finest novelists, but this oddly distanced work lacks the passionate personal engagement of a masterpiece like Continental Drift (1985) or the bracing historical revisionism of Cloudsplitter (1998).