A riveting novel of feeling and suspense in which grief and punishment become tragically intertwined.
At the close of a beautiful summer day near the quiet Connecticut town where they live, the Learner family--Ethan and Grace, their children, Josh and Emma--stop at a gas station on their way home from a concert. Josh Learner, lost in a ten-year-old's private world, is standing at the edge of the road when a car comes racing around the bend. He is hit and instantly killed. The car speeds away.
From this moment forward, Reservation Road becomes a harrowing countdown to the confrontation between two very different men. The hit-and-run driver is a small-town lawyer named Dwight Arno, a man in desperate need of a second chance. Dwight is also the father of a ten-year-old boy, who was asleep in the car the night Josh Learner was killed. Now Dwight must decide whether to run from his crime or to pay the price for what he did. Ethan Learner, a respected professor of literature at a small New England college, has seen his orderly world shattered in a single moment, yet persists in the belief that he can find the unknown man who killed his son. Behind their stories are those of eight-year-old Emma, who can't stop thinking her brother's death was her fault, and of Grace, who must find the strength to keep herself and her family together, and to be the mother Emma so badly needs.
In a gripping narrative woven from the voices of Ethan, Dwight, and Grace, Reservation Road tells the story of two ordinary families facing an extraordinary crisis--a book that reads like a thriller but opens up a world rich with psychological nuance and emotional wisdom. Reservation Road explores the terrain of grief even as it astonishes with unexpected redemption: powerful and wrenching and impossible to put down.
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September 17, 2007
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Excerpt from Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz
I want to tell this right. On a beautiful summer's day we picnicked in a field as an orchestra played under a yellow tent.
The clouds began to gather in the blue sky around five o'clock. Handel was finished and Beethoven was still to come, the Ninth with full chorus, and there were couples strolling across the lush green field and two teenage boys tossing a Frisbee back and forth, the white disc chased by a barking black dog. And then Emma stood up and said she wanted to go home; she was eight years old and didn't much care for Beethoven. Grace suggested a walk instead, and Emma grudgingly accepted, and mother and daughter went off hand in hand, leaving Josh and me alone.
Room was being made for the chorus under the tent. They stood on the grass, in evening clothes, talking or limbering up their voices. Snatches of notes, bits of German, came floating over to us. And for perhaps the second or third time that day, I explained to my son that the final chorus of the Ninth Symphony was in fact Schiller's "Ode to Joy."
Josh merely nodded. He was a thin, private boy of ten, with dark, curly hair like mine. Sometimes he was a mystery to me. He'd been studying the violin seriously since his seventh birthday and was already well acquainted with Beethoven. Countless times he'd sat with me in my study listening to a scratchy recording of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus performing the Ninth Symphony, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing soprano.
Now he reached into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a flat, putty-colored stone. Staring off into the distance, he began polishing it with his thumb. I followed his gaze and there was the black dog leaping into the air after the Frisbee and the Frisbee floating just beyond the dog's reach. I asked him what he had there, in his hand.
He looked up at me--surprised, as if he'd thought he was alone.
"Arrowhead," he replied, looking away again.
"Can I see it?"
He shrugged, holding out his hand, palm up. I took the arrowhead from him, turning it over in my own hand. It was a fine specimen, the point still defined, the surface at once jagged and smooth. "It's a nice one," I said. "Where'd you get it?"
"You should take it into science class when school starts. You'd be a big hit with that thing."
"When I was your age, I--"
"Can I have it back now?"
I felt the blood rise in my face. I had a powerful urge to throw the arrowhead across the field and into the trees, but I was his father and did no such thing. "Sure," I said. I gave it back to him. And then we sat without speaking for some minutes, until Grace and Emma returned from their walk, and the four of us were settled peacefully again on our blanket.
"Find anything on your travels?" I inquired.
"A really fat lady," Emma said.
"Emma," Grace said.
"Shh," said Josh, "it's starting."
The tent had fallen still, voices and instruments silenced. The conductor in his black tails tapped the air with his baton, and there was a single cough from an oboist in the third row. And then the explosion of the first bars, like the sky opening. I looked at Josh. He'd shifted to his knees to get a better view of the violinists in the first row. His back had gone perfectly straight and his lips were moving.
I will never forget the final movement. How the voices entered forcefully from the first, resonant yet still earthbound, to be joined by a multitude of others. How the sound grew from inside the yellow tent until it became a god, and the conductor's body seemed to beat to its calling. And finally, how my son, alone among us all, got to his feet and remained there, standing and silent, long after the music had ended.
The sun was low in the sky when we started the drive back. It had fallen into a cloud behind the verdant trees and the light emanating from there was seashell pink. In the backseat of the station wagon, Emma had fallen asleep with her thumb in her mouth and Josh was staring out the window, humming.
The next half-hour or so was a disappearance; the light just withdrew, shrinking back behind the curtain. Roadside trees turned ever softer--until, all at once, it seemed, they were granite. I switched on the headlights. Heading south on Route 7, we crossed the state line into Canaan, bumped over the train tracks that ran there, passed the Connecticut State Police barracks on our right and then on our left my dentist, Dr. Zinser, and Tommy's Diner. A quarter of a mile further on, I turned east onto Reservation Road, which was the locals' shortcut between Route 7 and our town of Wyndham Falls.
We were twenty minutes from home. It was dark now. Reservation Road was narrow and unlit and flanked throughout by woods on both sides. Above the trees the sky sat like an enormous bruise. We were rounding a turn when suddenly I saw a stirring in the air at the outer edge of the headlight beams, like a small cloud of upward-falling rain. The car punched into it and instantly the windshield was splattered with dead insects. I braked hard but kept the car rolling.