Thursday, May 10, 2012

Burnt Mountain Brings Anne Rivers Siddons Back With a Story Steeped in the Deep South

Anne Rivers Siddons has long been one of my favorite southern authors. I've read all of her books, from the nonfiction essay collection John Chancellor Makes Me Cry to the spooky The House Next Door to her southern novels like Peachtree Road.

With three years between new novels (after 2008's Off Season), I was more than excited about Burnt Mountain. And then the reviews started coming in, and they were... tepid. Blah. Not... good. But I just couldn't believe it; after all, this was Anne Rivers Siddons we were talking about. She of NYT bestseller lists and well more than a dozen published books.

And so, eventually (it released last summer), I read Burnt Mountain, anyway -- despite the so-so reviews. In the beginning, I found the book breathtaking. Siddons draws readers in with the story of Thayer Wentworth and her tragic, yet fairy tale-like, childhood. Charmed in many ways, with a small-town southern belle mother and a father from a wealthy Atlanta family, Thayer's life is nonetheless full of heartbreak. Her father's early death affects her life from that point on.

However, it is her grandmother's death decades later that serves as a catalyst for change in Thayer's life. She and her Irish professor husband marry at Sewanee, where they met. The newlyweds then promptly move into a hidden house her grandmother left for Thayer in her will. After this move, the lifelong tension between Thayer's mother and her reaches an all-time high, and eventually a breaking point.

Thayer and Aengus settle into life in the Atlanta suburbs on the riverbanks of the Chattahoochee, mingling with neighbors and sharing a common disgust for the new-money McMansions nearby. However, when Aengus is asked by a politician firmly in the new-money category to serve on the arts commission for the upcoming Olympics in Atlanta, things begin to change.

Aengus begins spending time at a mountaintop camp for boys, coincidentally near the location where Thayer's father died decades before. Thayer observes a marked change within him, causing her to wonder who the man she married actually is.

I believe this is the point that the novel teeters off-course, when the supernatural (but not quite) starts to creep in. The bottom line is that Aengus seems to be a deeply disturbed, mentally ill individual. Thayer's actions after the fact aren't all that righteous, either. Although the novel's ending wasn't enough for me to discount the book entirely -- I still enjoyed it, and I still rank Siddons among my favorite southern novelists -- it was not an ending anyone would hope for. A bit odd, a bit bizarre, with a strangely happy(ish) ending.

I hope to see more from Siddons, because the first three quarters of the novel were better than anything most writers are putting out there. Perhaps someone (an editor, a publisher) will take a firm stance against changing things quite so dramatically towards the end of future novels. Even if they don't, I'll remain a Siddons reader until the end.

Anne Rivers Siddons is the author of seventeen other novels, the aforementioned essay collection, and two screenplays (for movies based on two of her novels). Born in 1936, she has lived the southern life she describes in her books. She and her husband currently split their time between Charleston, South Carolina, and Maine.

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