At five-nine, Serena stood taller than either man, but Pemberton knew other aspects of Serena's appearance helped foster Buchanan and Wilkie's obvious surprise--pants and boots instead of a dress and cloche hat, sun-bronzed skin that belied Serena's social class, lips and cheeks untinted by rouge, hair blonde and thick but cut short in a bob, distinctly feminine yet also austere.

She is a woman who is deeply tormented by her tragic past, and yet she maintains an inextricable hold on everyone and everything that intersects--or interferes--with her quest for power and wealth in the timber industry. If you've seen the film version, which twists the novel into a story about a woman whom tragedy has transformed into a dangerously obsessed and jealous person, you have not met the real Serena. Jealous and obsessed are words indicative of weakness. Ron Rash's Serena is powerful and ruthless from the very first chapter. She is not obsessed, but rather fiercely devoted to her pursuits. She is not jealous so much as she demands unwavering loyalty in love and in business. She inspires fear and awe as she commands nature as well as man.

Part of what makes the novel compelling, however, is that Rash writes with balance and restraint. He creates tension and describes the novel's most brutal moments without soap opera dramatics. He layers violence and corruption with glimpses of beauty and tenderness, and yet you cannot ever forget that this is not the kind of world you would like to live in. Early in the novel, a group of workmen are debating the existence of a mythical panther in their mountains, and someone raises the question of whether things need to be somehow seen to be real--

"Well," Snipes said. "They's love, that's one. And courage. You can't see neither of them, but they're real. And air, of course. That's one of your most important examples. You wouldn't be alive a minute if there wasn't air, but nobody's ever seen a single speck of it."

"And chiggers," Stewart said helpfully. "You'll never see one but you get into a mess of them and you'll be itching for a week."

"So you're saying you believe there's still a panther around," Dunbar said.

"I'm not certain of such a thing," Snipes said. "All I'm saying is there's a lot more to this old world than meets the eye."

The crew foreman paused and stretched his open palms closer to the fire.

"And darkness. You can't see it no more than you can see air, but when it's all around you sure enough know it."

For me, the novel unfolded in a similar way. At first, I wasn't sure if I would enjoy the book enough to keep it. I had every intention of finishing it for tonight's book club meeting and then returning it to the used bookstore for a credit towards my next book. But the more I read, the more I realized that there might be more to this book than I first thought.

For now, I'd have to say that Serena is a novel that explores the human capacity for evil, especially in the quest for power. It reminded me a lot of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, Shakespeare's Macbeth, and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. It also made me think of this photograph, which I took on the Pacific Coast Highway in California.

There's something relaxing about the way the towers to the right contrast with the blue and yellow sunset, and the way the power lines drape across the sky, reaching out in so many different directions. Yet the sun itself is harsh and searing--even a photograph of it makes me want to squint. I can't tell if its beautiful or dangerous. Serena is both.