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Reservation Road

Reservation Road

3.7 32
by John Burnham Schwartz

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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 10-year-old's private world,


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 10-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 10-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 novel that sounds 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.

Editorial Reviews

Tom De Haven
One of those rare — very rare — novels that you don't so much read as inhabit. . .But it's the novel's conclusion, as perfect as it is sudden, shocking and completely unexpected, that will stick in your memory.
Entertainment Weekly
Erica Noonan
An unexpected pleasure. . .it will leave the reader entranced as well as moved. — The Boston Herald
Kit Reed
A triumph of form, pacing and power. . .character-driven as it is, it reads like a thriller, swift and complete.
New York Times Book Review
James Hynes
Reservation Road is a page-turner, but along the way there is much to linger over...it never fails to chill us with the sober knowledge that everything we have, and everything we are, can change in an instant. -- The Washington Post
David Bowman
A beautiful novel. An important novel.
New York Observer
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
'I wasn't rich, but my life was secure. That had always been its fundamental premise,' observes Ethan Learner, an English professor at a small college in Connecticut. Moments later, his 10-year-old son, Josh, is killed by a hit-and-run driver, inaugurating a novel of terrible beauty that charts the progress of grief with concerto-like precision. For Ethan, his wife, Grace, and their daughter, Emma, Josh becomes both a cold absence and a constant, haunting, unfulfilled promise. For Dwight -- the driver who killed Josh-- the event stands as more evidence of a significantly flawed life. Dwight is no cartoon villain; with a son, an ex-wife and a history of sudden violence, he's like a lesser Ethan -- a poor father who, through incompetence, has killed another man's son. Schwartz structures the book with the tautness of a thriller -- Will Ethan find his son's murderer? -- but this book quickly becomes much larger than a simple revenge tale. Neither does it become maudlin or forced. Ethan, Grace and Dwight all seem ruined by the boy's death, but, like three drowning people, they keep fighting for air--aided by Schwartz's strong, measured prose and exquisitely chosen metaphors (describing his now-troubled marriage, Ethan says, 'Our house... a wordless, internalized diaspora... a landscape riven with fault lines'). 'I want to tell this right," Ethan says several times during the course of the book. The author's first novel, Bicycle Days, gathered solid reviews but modest notice. With this effort, he seems poised to reach a break-out audience. If a story about overwhelming tragedy can be told right, this novel is--telling it with wise observation and abundant humanity. (PW best book of 1998)
Library Journal
The author of Bicycle Days returns with a powerful story about two unhappy Connecticut families linked by one violent moment. The Learners are the victims of tragedy: an ordinary stop at a country gas station turns to horror when their oldest child is killed by a hit-and-run driver in full view of his father, Ethan. As his wife and small daughter suffer through grief, depression, and guilt, Ethan is consumed by his compulsion to find and punish his son's murderer after the police give up. Nearby, failed attorney and divorced father Dwight Arno tortures himself with his memories of speeding away from the accident. Has running saved his fragile relationship with his own son (a schoolmate of the Learner boy), or has it made the unbearable problems between Dwight and his family even worse? More than slightly hoping to be apprehended, Dwight begins to behave oddly and deteriorate mentally, even as Ethan closes in on him. Narrated mainly by the two fathers, this is a forceful psychological novel in which nobody wins -- except readers appreciating Schwartz's well-wrought prose. -- Starr E. Smith, Marymount University Library, Alexandria,Virginia
Deirdre Donahue
It possesses a conclusion of such power that it would be a literary crime to reveal it. -- USA Today
Kit Reed
A triumph of form, pacing and power. . .character-driven as it is, it reads like a thriller, swift and complete. -- New York Times Book Review
Sandra Scofield
A pleasure to read. Suspense is redefined here. Newsday
Michiko Kakutani
A powerful and affecting novel. . .haunting. . .highly suspenseful. . .compelling to read -- The New York Times
Walter Kirn
Part hardboiled thrilled, part sensitive melodrama, with tears for the ladies and gunplay for the guys,....[He]tells the story from complementary viewpoints that must sooner or later collide and clash....Schwartz stays close enough to his characters' thoughts to keep the debate authentic and personal, rather than calculated and abstract. --Time Magazine
Vanity Fair
A poignant thriller. . .quietly breathtaking.. . . a suspenseful literary novel. --
Kirkus Reviews
The complex stages of guilt, grief, and recovery in the wake of a boy's hit-and-run death are exquisitely portrayed in this heartrending story by Schwartz (Bicycle Days), whose characterizations are as finely nuanced as they are sympathetic. Ten-year-old Josh Learner was killed by a hit-and-run driver that summer night in Connecticut, on the way back from a symphony picnic with his family; for the three adults—his parents and the driver of the speeding car—who saw what happened, it was as if their lives stopped then, too. His father Ethan, an English professor at a small college nearby, bears guilt for not having insisted that Josh come away from the road; his mother Grace is guilt-ridden as well, for having insisted they stop at the gas station so that Josh's sister Emma could use the restroom; and Dwight, running late after seeing a Red Sox game with his son and worried about the wrath of his ex at not having Sam back on time, not only has to bear the certainty of having killed someone Sam's age, but also the fact that the sleeping boy received a black eye from the accident—to go with the broken jaw that Dwight had given him accidentally on another occasion. In the ensuing months, Ethan tries to carry on while Grace shuts down almost completely, losing her business and her bearings. The police investigation goes nowhere, and when Ethan blows up at the officer in charge, he guarantees there'll be no further help from that quarter. Dwight, meanwhile, has let his legal practice go to hell, alienated himself from Sam and everyone else, and taken to heavy drinking while waiting for someone to find him out. After more than a year, Ethan finally does—and as thefirst snow of that year falls, they enact a ritual of revenge both primal and fitting. Rarely have three lives in crisis been detailed with such compassion and care: a tragic, utterly absorbing tale.

From the Publisher
"This is a shattering book, imagined with startling emotional precision and generosity. And though it begins in catastrophe, Reservation Road turns out to be a kind of map of connectedness: Touch a child here and the whole world trembles out of orbit; everyone bleeds; finally, perhaps, after great pain, everyone heals. John Burnham Schwartz is awfully young to own this much wisdom, but there it is, on every page."
—Rosellen Brown

"A powerful and affecting novel...haunting...highly suspenseful...compelling to read."
—Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

"Spellbinding...a haunting tale"

"A poignant thriller...quietly breathtaking...a suspenseful literary novel"
—Betsey Osborne, Vanity Fair

"A pleasure to read. Suspense is redefined here..."
—Sandra Scofield, Newsday

"A lovely book, full of life and feeling"
—Peter Matthiessen

"One of those rare—very rare—novels that you don't so much read as inhabit...But it's the novel's conclusion, as perfect as it is sudden, shocking and completely unexpected, that will stick in your memory."        
—Tom Dehaven, Entertainment Weekly

"A beautiful novel. An important novel"
—David Bowman, New York Observer

"Both a beautiful, wrenching story of redemption, and a novel of exquisite suspense"
—Anne Lamott

"A first-rate work of fiction disguised as a page-turning thriller"
—David Halberstam

"An unexpected pleasure...It will leave the reader entranced as well as moved."
—Erica Noonan, Boston Herald

"A non-stop read...a wonderful writer"
—Ward Just

"A triumph of form, pacing and power...character-driven as it is, it reads like a thrille, swift and complete."
—Kit Reed, New York Times Book Review

"It possesses a conclusion of such power that it would be a literary crime to reveal it."
—Deirdre Donahue, USA Today

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Contemporaries Series
Edition description:
Movie Tie-in
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.95(h) x 0.69(d)

Read an Excerpt


There's the truth in there somewhere; there's the beginning. I took my ten-year-old son to Fenway to see the Sox play the Yankees, Clemens dueling Key. We drove two and a half hours to get there. I'd gotten box seats, and Sam spent most of the game standing with his chin just above the railing, looking down over third base, his hands clenched into fists. It felt, for a while, like a perfect day.

But the game didn't end when it was supposed to. The pitchers dueled and nobody won. It went into extra innings. Sam's fists clenched tighter and I started looking at my watch. His mother was expecting him back by seven; his mother, who was my ex-wife. It was five, then five-thirty, and I could feel trouble waiting for me there, the way you can feel rain before it happens. I could almost hear Ruth's foot angrily beating time on the front porch that I'd built myself, in Bow Mills, where she still lived, two and a half hours away.

The game nearly ended in the bottom of the thirteenth, but the Boston base runner was thrown out at the plate. I couldn't believe it. Now I wonder if there wasn't a kind of pattern to it all, or something like that. Things lined up just for me to knock them down.

At five minutes to six, the Sox finally clinched it with a grand slam. Sam said it was the best game he'd ever seen. Afterwards, the hands that had been fists for hours were turned loose, and as we made our way out of the stadium to the jammed parking lot, one of them found its way into mine. It took him a minute to realize what he'd done and take back his hand. I acted as if I didn't know anything about it--didn't know what I'd had, didn't know what I'd lost. We got in thecar and inched our way out to the Mass Pike.

The sun was still in sight, angled low through Sam's window and reflecting off his sand-colored hair. For some reason the color of the light then made me think about Buzzards Bay, where he and Ruth and I had spent a long weekend once when he was five, just before the accident. The memory came and went, no place for it to stick. And I drove as fast as the traffic would allow, talking baseball with my son.

I could tell he was tired. It had been a big day. Eventually I stopped talking, to give him a chance to sleep. Sam yawned a couple of times and grew quiet. The prospect of his dropping off then seemed like a good thing to me. I saw it as a kind of savings plan, a way to insure that he'd remember our day together fondly. As if a nap would make time stop on a dime for him, and the day would be encapsulated, wrapped like a gift, worth enough to hold on to till next Sunday, when I'd get to try again.

I turned on the headlights around eight o'clock, just as we were leaving the pike. The tolltaker told me my right headlight wasn't working. He mentioned also that it was against the law to drive with a broken headlight. Something about his tone irked me. Pocketing my change, I told him in a friendly way that I was a lawyer and no doubt knew the law better than he did, and was on my way directly to get it fixed. I didn't say anything to him about my ex-wife. It was none of his business. The headlight could wait, but Ruth Wheldon, formerly Ruth Arno, could not. As it was, I'd be lucky to get Sam back by nine o'clock, two hours late. I'd be lucky if Ruth didn't already have a cop or two waiting on the porch with her (the porch I'd built with my own two hands), all of them keeping time with their feet. I thought about calling her from a pay phone somewhere, but that would have just seemed weak. I lit a cigarette and drove faster.

There'd been a time when seeing my son had nothing to do with the rights of law. It's nowhere in the history books--the trouble-free times never are. Ruth and I were still married. The three of us were a family. Sam was five when all of that came to an end.

A lot of people said afterwards that I used to beat him. That was a lie, and Ruth knew it was a lie, but she didn't say so. She let people think it. The fact is I'd never laid a punishing hand on my son until the night I nearly killed him.

He was in bed asleep when I came home from work. I was with a hotshot firm in Hartford then, doing wills and trusts and the like, working hard and getting home late. A career going upward, that's what it was called. I went into his room and kissed him in the dark. I sat a moment there on the edge of his bed, part hoping he'd wake up and talk to me. But he was out like a light. All his days were full at that age, I guessed.

Ruth had my dinner on the table when I came out of Sam's room. She'd already eaten. I said, "He's sleeping like a log," and she didn't say anything. I opened a can of beer and ate the food she'd cooked. She sat down across from me and started talking in a rush about one of her piano students at the school, some little boy. Then it was as if she just ran out of things to say. We sat there in silence. And gradually, as the dead minutes started piling up between us, and while I drank a second beer and then a third, I began to feel there was something wrong in the house, a kind of stillness that I didn't recognize or care for. To me right then she looked not like my wife but like some woman alone in a roadside diner at night; some woman who was waiting for anything or anyone but the usual scene she found staring back at her. And I realized that for weeks now I'd hardly seen her or Sam; had, in fact, not a clue what she might be thinking as she sat across from me with her mouth closed and her eyes fixed on the table. Boredom? Indifference? Resentment? I had no idea. Which, finally, was the only thing I could think to say to her. That I didn't know. And that was when, still looking down at the table, she told me that she was having an affair with a man named Norris Wheldon.

From here it all looks simple. I'd always had a temper, though for much of my life I'd kept it hidden away, safe and out of sight. My father was a violent man who used to beat me with a stripped-down juniper branch he'd taken from our yard. He had his method. Each time, he'd raise that branch and pause, hoping to catch me flinching or, better yet, raising my own hand against him. Any sign of fear or anger from me gave him the right to thrash me like some runt in a bar. The happiest summer of my childhood was when my body finally started turning into a man's. If I hadn't gone off to college, I might have killed him. I was a freshman at U Conn when he dropped dead of a heart attack. I didn't go home for the funeral.

My wife told me that she was in love with Norris Wheldon and planned to divorce me so she could marry him. She said she intended to keep Sam with her. I could visit him when I wanted, she said, as long as when I wanted wasn't more than one day a week. It was a canned speech, as if she'd prepared it while making the meat loaf. I was a lawyer. I should've been calm right then, calm and already building my case against her. What I felt instead was something else. My old friend Jack Cutter, who later represented me before the state, made a big deal to the court about the five beers I'd drunk that night (he included the two I'd had while still at work). He called what happened a "double impairment" of my senses brought about by alcohol and jealous rage. That essentially was my defense. It sounded plausible to me. I wanted someone to explain to me and for me how I could have done what I'd done, and Jack obliged. I had been impaired. The court agreed, up to a point.

To this day it feels the same to me; it feels no different. I see it all. Ruth gives me her canned speech about her and Norris and my son and our future, her eyes darting away like minnows. Then, all done, she waits for me to react. And when I don't, when I sit there with my cleaned plate and my three empties and do nothing, she starts getting nervous. Too quick she says, "Well, okay, Dwight. Okay then. I thought I should tell you myself, and now I've told you. It's over. Bob Jamison's going to be my attorney. I'm sorry." She gets up, taking my plate, clearing my place like it's any old day, and goes into the kitchen.

She's halfway to the sink when I hit her. Hit her with my fist as hard as I can, my knuckles striking around her right ear and drawing blood. She cries out and crumples to the ground. My wife. The plate shatters on the linoleum. I take a look at her on the floor, but it hasn't registered yet, hasn't happened yet. It was somebody else's fist. I don't feel released or relieved. And I turn to go. It's not my house any more. Not my wife. Every bit of it is a mistake. I get to the front door and am putting on my coat.

She grabs me from behind by the hair and pulls, screaming, "Bastard!" Rips a clump of my hair out by the roots, scalp too, like somebody sticking hot pins into my brain. It makes me crazy and I lash out blindly, a roundhouse punch for her stomach. To end it.

I hit my son in the face.

He had arrived, running, to protect us from ourselves. It had never occurred to me he'd do that. The bones in his jaw were fragile like a bird's and I felt them break under my fist.

He was unconscious for a little while. He had a concussion. His jaw was wired, I was told, for weeks afterwards.

Jack Cutter, old friend, did his legal best and got me two years' probation, during which time I was suspended from practicing law. It was strongly advised that I move to another part of the state, which I did. I got counseling. Every week I wrote a letter to Sam. Once in a while, he wrote back. He said he was feeling okay, school was okay, he didn't like his stepdad so much. His spelling was bad, and sometimes I worried about permanent damage. It was four years before I was allowed to see him again.

I moved back to the northwest corner of the state, to a town about ten miles southeast of Bow Mills called Box Corner. So I could see my son again--Sundays, home by seven, nice and easy now. Ruth Wheldon looking at me. It was hard at first, but it was a life. Jack Cutter was good enough to take me on as a partner in his small-town practice in Canaan, and was patient when I was slow to bring in business. Not everyone was so friendly. There were some people around Bow Mills who still remembered all too well what they thought happened that night. But Sam wasn't one of them. He never mentioned what I'd done to him, or seemed to be chewing on it. If you didn't already know his history, I thought, you wouldn't know it. He was a pretty regular boy.

We went to ball games and things. And for a while, that was my life.

It was a quarter to nine and we were still twenty, twenty-five minutes from Ruth's. How had it happened? I had us on the shortcut that I knew like my own birthday, and we were zinging along in the dark without a right headlight, the trees standing dense as pitch on either side of the road. It was hard to see. I threw a smoldering butt out the window and lit another cigarette. We were late. Sam was asleep with his cheek pressed up against the door and I was starting to talk to myself. Sorry I'm late, Ruth. The game went extra innings. Sam says it was the best damn game he's ever seen, Ruth. Go ahead, ask him. . . . See? Right, okay then. Take that fucking noose from around my neck. It was tricky when my thoughts got going to keep my foot from pressing too hard on the pedal; just my brain trying to shape what was happening in a more favorable way. I switched on the radio--low, so as not to wake him. A little bit of country music to take the edge off.

But I couldn't keep from thinking: in the light of day you could see the faint scar on Sam's smooth face, a thin white tributary mapping the line of his reconstructed jaw.

I don't remember checking the speedometer. Reservation Road was too black for that speed. I was thinking about Sam, hoping he'd remember the day for what was good in it, when I drove us too fast into the first of the two sharp, tree-packed turns leading to Tod Lovell's gas station. The car started shimmying across the midline and too late I tried to adjust, cutting the wheel hard to the right. But I cut too hard. The front wheels were already on the near shoulder of the second turn before I jerked the wheel sharply back to the left, the tires screeching, quick and pinched, until I cut the wheel again and the fishtail straightened though the road did not, but still I felt control coming back and almost sighed with relief. And then suddenly on the right the trees opened and the three glowing red letters of Tod's sign appeared.

I don't know how a single frame could have held so much: two old-fashioned pumps and a flat-roofed building with one bright-lit window but no other lights, as if the planet right there was underwater. A station wagon parked in front with all its doors open, looking like a winged flying machine. And a man, a tall, dark-haired man with little round glasses, coming out of the office carrying something in his hand. He was looking at me and I was looking at him, through the dimness. I saw his mouth open wide, and then his eyes moved off me, his head snapping around to see the road ahead.

And then I saw what he saw.

The boy standing in the road as if he'd sprouted from it. Dark-haired like his father. And the father's shout suddenly making a kind of sense: "Josh!" The front of my car hit him in the chest. The useless headlight popped like a gunshot. And he flew away into the darkness.

The impact made the car shudder. My foot came off the gas. And we were coasting, still there, but moving, fleeing. Unless I braked now: Do it. My foot started for the brake. But then Sam started to wail in pain and I froze. I looked over and he was holding his face in both hands and screaming in pain. I went cold. "Sam!" I shouted, his name coming from deep down in my gut and sounding louder and more desperate to my ears than any sound I'd ever made. He didn't respond. "Sam!"

In the rearview mirror I saw the dark-haired man sprinting up the road after us. His fury and his fear were in his half-shadowed face, the frenzied pumping of his arms. He was coming to punish me, and for a moment I wanted him to. My foot was inching toward the brake. But suddenly I felt Sam warm against my side, curling up and holding on and bawling like a baby. I put my foot on the gas.

As we began to pull away, I checked the mirror one last time: the man had veered off our path and was bent over in the thick roadside shrubs. Where his child was. About my son's age, maybe still alive, though I knew he wasn't.

The car kept picking up speed. Then we were gone from that clearing, swallowed up by the trees.

What People are Saying About This

David Halberstam
A first-rate work of fiction disguised as a page-turning thriller.
Ward Just
A non-stop read. . .a wonderful writer.
Anne Lamott
Both a beautiful, wrenching story of redemption, and a thriller of exquisite suspense.
Peter Matthiessen
A lovely book, full of life and feeling.

Meet the Author

John Burnham Schwartz lives in New York City.

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Reservation Road 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 32 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Walks in
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Walks in wearing short black shorts and a lace shirt.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great writing, brings you close to th characters and wraps you up in a deep, warm emotional story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dragged on in some parts but
lifelong_readerOH More than 1 year ago
A moving novel; heartbreakingly real. I could not put this book down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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DebsSweet More than 1 year ago
Twists and turns were super!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I think I wasn't in the mood for this book when I started it. It was the beginning of summer and I was craving fun. But this book is anything but fun. It is very, very dark and depressing. No comic relief and perpetual sadness page after page. You keep hoping for redemption and to connect more with the characters...however, you never quite get there. The ending was the only satisfaction I got.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After hearing great things about this book, I was disappointed that it was not as riveting as i was led to believe. I felt the author did not do a great job in developing the characters. Although you could feel their pain, you were still like an outsider looking in.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this one of the most depressing books I have read in a long time. The essence was not lost on me, I understand the moral dilemmas. But it's nearly 300 pages of sadness with no relief. I liked the writing style but it was just a downer.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I liked it, it was a decent book, but it left a bad taste in my mouth, especially since it borrows from 'The Sweetherafter' and 'The Crossing Guard'
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading reservation road very much. I thought it was very interesting because unlike so many of todays readers, i have not turned a blind side to comic books, after much study and determination i have found mank links and references to one of Stan Lee's most popular Marvel comics, the Fantastic Four. 'A family of heroes, whos lives change when their rocketship crashes.' Sound familiar? Please help me get into contact with JB Shartz, so i may further question his creativity and connection to comic books
Guest More than 1 year ago
The basis of the story was good and I liked how it was separated into the different points of view of the characters. It would have also been interesting to see Emma included with the adults. I did not care for the writing style.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. It was a fast read and I felt equally sorry for the characters. The sorrow the characters felt facing such a tragedy seemed genuine. I would recommend this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really like this book. The plot is well drawn and the characters are very believable. The grief and pain are so realistic. Loved the ending! I highly recommend this book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The multiple points of view for narration are handled well, but Grace seems superfluous while Sam does not appear as one of the voices. The general premise is solid, and the conclusion is intense--I did not know until the final sentences how things would turn out, and what the author presents is entirely plausible. Definitely worth checking out despite some scenes that seem to add little.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Waljs in
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hey guess what? Ford sucks!!! DODGE ALL THE WAY