It is 1936, and we are in the Adirondacks, at a party at a luxurious camp on a vast private reserve. (“Camp” is a local upper-caste understatement, comparable to the use of “cottage” in Newport, R.I.) As the sun begins to dip behind the mountain range that dominates the horizon, a beautiful young woman detaches herself from her elders and walks barefoot to the shore of the lake. Suddenly a seaplane appears in the air and all look on, stunned, as it lands on the surface of the water. Such a thing has never before occurred, and furthermore is taboo under the largely unspoken laws of the reserve. A dashing aviator — we will discover that he is a famous artist, a radical, a free spirit — steps out of the plane and locks eyes with the glamorous yet troubled young woman.
You can picture this on the movie screen, can’t you: all golden light and exquisite set design and dazzling wardrobe and starring, perhaps, Keira Knightley. Russell Banks’s new novel begins this way, and the scene exemplifies both its strengths and its weaknesses — it is not necessarily evident which is which.