Friday, March 7, 2008

Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz (audio book read by Cassandra Campbell, Robertson Dean, and Arthur Morey)

Sunday, July 24, 1994. 8:45 PM — Waiting for his family to come out of the gas station where they stopped to let his little sister Emma go to the bathroom, ten-year-old Josh Learner stood by the side of Reservation Road. Then a car came around the curve and knocked Josh thirty feet into the nearby shrubbery.

Local attorney Dwight Arno was in a hurry. The Red Sox game he had taken his (also ten-year-old) son Sam to went into extra innings. As Sam's noncustodial parent, he was expected to return Sam home sharply at seven. It was already almost nine. He didn't see Josh until it was too late.

But he didn't stop. The impact made Sam scream. Worried that it had somehow redone some of the damage caused by Dwight's own fist (it was an accident but was also totally preventable) years ago, Dwight continued on, wanting to get Sam home even faster now.

Ethan Learner, Josh's father, saw it all happen as he exited the gas station on his way back to the car. But it was dark, so he didn't see the driver, the color of the car, or the license plate. When the policeman at the scene tells him later that it is very possible the driver will never be caught, Ethan decides to pursue his own justice.

For me to go any further with this description would be to give away the closest thing Reservation Road has to a plot twist. It is purely literary fiction, after all, simply disguised as a crime thriller. In fact, after the crime is committed in the first few pages, there is little in the way of "action." What author John Burnham Schwartz does instead is put the reader in the minds of Dwight, Ethan, and Ethan's wife Grace as they go through the aftermath of the tragedy.

I got interested in Reservation Road from seeing the trailer for the recent film adaptation. The premise was intriguing, but I didn't expect a movie to be able to tackle the subject matter with enough depth, so I sought out the book.

It was a stroke of brilliance to have the audiobook of Reservation Road read by three different people. This helps the listener delve even deeper into the individual psyches of the characters. And "individual" is the right word. There is never any chance that the reader is going to get characters confused because Schwartz (or is that Burnham Schwartz?) has created three distinctly different personalities, and he is not clear as to which characters we are supposed to like and which ones deserve our derision.

I used to read a lot of literary fiction, but I stopped because of the popular interest in character over story. Reservation Road is an example of how both can be done well together — a compelling story with people that really exist, and a level of suspense that is unmatched, primarily because these are people we've come to know intimately.

These are not characters we've seen before in other books. There are books you read, and there are books you live. Reservation Road is one of the latter. It's a book that I believe will stay with me always.

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