Many have likened novelist Anne Rivers Siddons to Margaret Mitchell, a comparison that prompts a chuckle in Siddons, the author of such blockbusters as Outer Banks, Colony, and Peachtree Road. "We don't write remotely about the same thing," Siddons says, only to reconsider, "Well, she wrote about the profound loss of one society and the need to live in another one, and I have too a little bit, but we really are not the same. I guess it's because we're both from Atlanta and we both write long books."
However, they won't be from the same city for long. In November, Siddons, her husband, and their four cats will move from Atlanta to the heart of historic Charleston, South Carolina. "It's an enormous move," Siddons admits. "I have lived in this area for seven generations and in this house for 30 years. I may end up in Prozac City. Who knows? We have lots of friends in Charleston, but it's going to be an enormous shock."
Readers can get a hearty helping of the Charleston vicinity in Siddons's latest book, a page-turner called Low Country, about the perennial war between natural beauty and coastal development.
Low Country's heroine, Caroline Venable, has one precious thing left in her life: a pristine island inherited from her grandfather. In addition to the family cottage, it's home to a small Gullah settlement, a band of wild ponies, and other wildlife, including a mysterious panther. Caroline's husband, Clay, has made a fortune developing resort communities in various locales, but when his empire faces bankruptcy, he is convinced that financial salvation lies in developing Caroline's island. For Caroline, this is unacceptable, which means she must face one of the biggest challenges of her life.
The seeds for the plot were born years ago when Siddons worked as a copywriter for the first island resort on Hilton Head, South Carolina. "I watched the land turn from almost primeval forest to what it is now, which is Manhattan South," Siddons remembers. "It isn't that any developer sets out to ruin a place, it's just that even the best and most ecologically sensitive plan requires something fragile to be lost. I have always wanted to write about this clash."
Once Siddons knew she was moving to Charleston, she began spending a lot of time in the surrounding islands, especially in the vicinity of Ace Basin. Describing the area as primeval, she says: "It's a real experience to go out on a warm summer night. You come back thinking you've been back to the dawn of the millennium. It's one of the wildest places I've ever seen. And the idea that someone might build a Disney World-type place there is just abhorrent. I really would like to do what I can to help the area stay intact."
Specifically, she applauds the efforts of a group called the Carolina Coastal Conservancy for buying and preserving large tracts of wetlands. Meanwhile, she preserves the feel of such natural treasures in her fiction, having Caroline, who has faced great tragedy in her life, find solace on her island, where she is free to relax and paint.
Ironically, when Siddons herself seeks peace, she heads north instead of south, to a peninsula on Maine's Penobscot Bay, a summer retreat that's been in her husband's family for years. "I'm very drawn to that severe, cold, rocky beach [of New England]," Siddons says, "and I'm equally drawn to that blood-warm water [of the South]. But I'm never so happy as I am on the waters of Maine. I have a sense that whatever is looming or bothersome can be put off until I get home. Also, it's physically a long way from any other entanglements I may have, so if anybody gets upset and needs to be comforted, it had better be good."
Why do islands have such prominent roles in her novels? "I think it's the idea that they're totally apart from the world," Siddons explains. "An island has some sort of magnetic pull. It makes all these promises that it will keep you safe and nurture you. Of course this is not true, but I still never sleep as soundly as I do on an island or on our little peninsula in Maine."
Caroline, like several of the author's heroines, risks losing the core of her existence. "I think my heroines will always be ordinary women who have made a journey," Siddons says. "Maybe it doesn't happen so totally and drastically to most of us, but I haven't seen many women fall into middle age without losing something that has always been a very important part of their lives, and either having to make a life around that, or find a way to go on, or change in order to go on. It seems to me that women are left to do the changing and accommodating."
Siddons's own transforming journey occurred 15 years ago, when she battled severe depression that lasted three years, leaving her unable to write. "It was mostly a matter of brain chemistry, but I didn't know what it was. It was totally crippling. I could hardly exist. We finally found a drug that worked and a wonderful woman therapist. It felt like one of those things you either survive or you don't — there aren't too many in-betweens."
Finally, she had an idea for a book, and slowly, hesitantly, began to write. "If I couldn't write, it would have killed me," she says, "but I had to try." The result was Homeplace, followed by a string of additional bestsellers.
Siddons has not only survived, but flourished. She excitedly talks about the prospect of moving into the antique Charleston single house, which is one room wide, two stories high, and about eight rooms deep. "The idea of living in a city with that kind of resonance and beauty is so exciting," she muses. "I feel spoiled to be able to keep that much of everything I love about the South. It's like a fairy tale."
Alice Cary writes from her home in Groton, Massachusetts.