On a warm midsummer's night, on the long drive home through rural New England countryside, young Emma Learner tugs urgently at her mother. Ihave to go to the bathroom. We're almost home, her mother replies. I can't hold it, the child complains. Resignedly, her father pulls into the lone gas station on Reservation Road, where the mother and child make a beeline for the rest room. The father heads for the cashier to purchase a bottle of windshield washer fluid, and the last family member, ten-year-old Josh, meanders out to the quiet roadside to play.
A couple of miles up the road, weekend dad Dwight Arno drives his several year old Ford Taurus a little too fast for prevailing conditions. One of its headlights is broken, and Dwight can't see as well as he should. His son Sam sleeps in the passenger seat. Dwight is late in returning his son to his ex-wife, and he knows she will be upset with him. His reason is valid: the major league baseball game to which he had taken the boy had gone into extra innings, but Dwight has long since used up his quota of excuses. Up ahead, around a corner, shine the lights of a country service station. Dwight clips the corner a bit too closely and one of his tires goes off into the soft shoulder. The car begins to fishtail. He over-corrects, then over-corrects in the opposite direction. Nightmarishly, the frightened face of young Josh Learner is illuminated by Dwight's one working headlight, then there is the sharp impact. Sam is tossed to the floor and lets out a scream. What happened?, he asks groggily. We hit a dog, his father replies, and he accelerates away from the scene.
Fast forward several months: the authorities have back-burnered the investigation. It seems unlikely that the driver will be apprehended, at least through conventional police work. Meanwhile, the sorrowful and frustrated Learner family is quietly falling apart. The parents scarcely talk; a latticework of guilt and misplaced blame casts a mottled shadow over their household. Across town, Dwight Arno has taken to drinking; his relationships disintegrate one by one. For Dwight, it seems there will be no redemption without confession. For the Learners, there will be no peace without revenge. And so, inexorably, they begin their terrible race back to Reservation Road.
Part forensic mystery (think Patricia Cornwell), part chronicle of families in the wake of disaster (think Anne Tyler), Reservation Road is a virtually perfect book. John Burnham Schwartz can turn a phrase with the best of them, but his real talent lies in his characterizations. By turns, the reader feels empathy and compassion for each of the book's main characters, even, inexplicably, Dwight.