Well, I’m pretty mixed on this one. The writing was wonderful–descriptive, lush, full of emotions. I loved what Siddons did with the “abyss”–the ways in which we disguise our true selves, even from those we love the most. The way that Kate’s father reinvented himself–and his daughter–as true Southern aristocrats was masterfully written. But the climax of the book made me hate Kate, and the resolution was, frankly, unbelievable. Again, in many ways it was masterfully done–we see Kate’s own self-hatred and arguments, amid the symbolic hurricane–but then the resolution with Fig abruptly pulled me back to reality and left me shaking my head, trying to figure out what Siddons was thinking. I really struggled not to just abandon this book several times. And as for the settings, I’m also conflicted–the book is actually set in a number of states, not just North Carolina, but the Outer Banks themselves are the most clearly described. Except that Siddons describes Kate’s home on Long Island in almost the same words.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of that state. We are in North Carolina at the moment, channeling the Outer Banks.
[We were sitting on] Nag’s Head beach, watching the twilight die over the Atlantic. On either side of us hulked the great, black-weathered, two-and three-story cottages that made up what the Bankers call the Unpainted Aristocracy—a long line of huge, weather-stained wooden summer houses that had been built in the early days of the century by the very rich. When they were first built, the houses reigned alone on that lordly line of dunes, owning by sheer force majeure the wild, empty beach. Now they are surrounded by flealike armies of bungalows and time-shares and fishing piers and umbrella and float rentals, like mastodons beset by pygmies. But even now, when you are on the front porches or verandas, you have no sense of the graceless, idiot hoards nibbling at their skirts. Only of wind and sun and emptiness, and the endless sea.
The only settings in the book that are clearly described and integral to the story are the beach houses–one on Long Island, and one in Nag’s Head. The four women in the story attend college together and belong to the same sorority. However, the college setting(s) are so abysmal as to be ridiculous. Siddons refers to Randolph and Randolph-Macon, and to Lynchburg, Virginia, and Alabama. It was made clear (sort of) that Kate had at some point transferred from Lynchburg where she started out.
There is a real-life Randolph College located in Lynchburg, Virginia. And a Randolph-Macon (Women’s) College in Ashland, Virginia (north of Richmond). But the Randolph the young women attend is co-ed, and seems to be in northern Alabama–when Siddons describes the overnight road trip to get to Nag’s Head from campus, she mentions the names of cities that chart a path through Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina.
We’re going to have to stop overnight in Charlotte or somewhere … The new green of the advancing spring streamed across Alabama and Georgia and into North Carolina, and we chattered and giggled and slept and woke again … The next afternoon, after a straight, seemingly endless, grind across North Carolina’s fertile black flatlands, we crossed the Albemarle River and then Roanoke Sound, at Manteo, and turned left onto a narrow, pitted blacktop road that paralleled the coast.
This particular Randolph, though, seems to be fictional. The only Randolph I found in Alabama was a K-12 private school in Huntsville. Incidentally, Kate mentions that her mother was assumed to have attended Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, but that’s the one in Richmond, while Randolph College in Lynchburg was co-ed.
The vagueness of the location contributes to the vagueness of the setting, but we don’t even get a clear picture of any of the campus buildings–with the possible exception of McCandless Hall where Paul and Kate work at their drafting tables, and the Tri Omega sorority house (or at least the suite). And I get it, that these sections are taken from Kate’s memories and these settings aren’t as important to her story and memories as the people, whereas the beach houses are much more concrete to her for a variety of reasons.
We planted black pines, sedum, juniper and glossy privet to shield the deck and garden from the punishing torrents of salt wind, but I kept them shaped and clipped. Outside, on the dunes, were beach grass and sea oats, beach morning glory and sea rocket and dune spurge and panic grass…
A wooden walkway led from the porch down through the low, scrubby vegetation to the tan sand itself. The walkway was weathered to near-black like the house, and it snaked its way through drifts of sea oats, beach grass, and a dense, low matting of little running plants and flowers I could not name. The sand itself was powdery and soft, drifting like whipped cream and then melting into damp, packed flatness and finally a shining mirror where earth met water. The combers marched in stately and perfect, unhurried and unimpeded in their progress straight from Spain. The water, except for where it broke white on the beach, was the deep, true blue of gentians, or lapis lazuli. No one was on the beach below, and no sails broke the great, tossing blueness, and no sound but the hollow boom… hushhhh of the water and the bronze calling of gulls reached our ears. The wind was straight off the sea and fresh and nearly chilly, blowing our hair straight back, but the sun on the backs of our necks and shoulders was still hot.
The contrast between the vague college settings and the more realized beach settings would seem to make it an okay read for this challenge, but the problem is that there isn’t a lot of difference between the descriptions of the Outer Banks and those of Long Island–and our challenge is all about getting to know a particular place and what makes it unique. And I get this too–there is a parallel sameness in the story to the two beach houses and their occupants.
The wide, tawny beach was empty. The dunes still soared high and lonely against the evening sky, and the sea oats flattened themselves backward in the steady stream of wind off the Atlantic. The tide was high today, and the white surf creamed at the feet of the first low dunes. The water was very dark blue, and the pale light was so clear that you could see the rippled herringbone pattern of the sand in the shallows of the tidepools, and the bankerly patrols of strutting gulls that must have been two miles away. The air was warmer around us than I remembered from the spring, like warmed honey. But the wind was cool and fresh and tart as wine.
On the plus side, the descriptions of the Outer Banks in Anne Rivers Siddons’ book are worlds away from those of the marshes in Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, even though the physical locations are not that far apart. The one bit of description that sounds like Kya’s marshes is when Cecie is telling Kate about her home on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia:
She told me about the strange, lost, primordial water-world of the Tidewater and the great Bay, about the seasons and the tides and the shining, writhing blue crabs that she pulled from the water on the dock in front of her grandmother’s house, and the waterfowl and vast, loose Vs of geese that passed over each spring and fall on their way north and south. Once she had been on her way to mass and had stopped to watch the wild geese pass overhead and never made mass at all.
Despite the vagueness of the settings and the thinness of the Fig plotline, there were aspects of this book that were fabulous–I loved the literary references, especially to Nabokov and Dorothy Parker.
Vladimir Nabokov began Speak, Memory with the words, “The cradle rocks above an abyss.” … This Russian, himself an exile, had named the emptiness and shown me it was vividly and certainly there, under all our feet, and always had been. This Russian was a man who knew his way around an abyss. I might walk the abyss again, but from now on this Russian would walk with me, and had given me an entire company of fellow abyss walkers.
Siddons ties Nabokov to her “abyss” metaphor with quotes from several of his works but his biography, Speak, Memory, in particular. And some of the best moments in Outer Banks are when Kate and Cecie are quoting bits of Dorothy Parker to each other.
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania(Dorothy Parker, Not So Deep as a Well, 1937)
There’s a quick overview of the poem’s meaning here, and a more in-depth but still short biography of Marie here. But the friends use it as code for times when they are feeling life’s absurdity and contradictions, and we can feel their delight in each other and in Parker’s sharp wit–and it rekindled my own interest in Parker as well. The Poetry Foundation site has a brief biography of Parker as well as postings of a number of her poems, several of which I recognized from Siddons’ book.
Overall, Outer Banks by Anne Rivers Siddons was a middling to poor book choice for our reading challenge for North Carolina. The images of the Outer Banks were lovely but didn’t necessarily paint a real picture of the area for us–perhaps the best descriptions were those during the hurricane (though hurricanes do make landfall along other parts of the Atlantic coast). I came away with a strong mental image of the coast, but I’m not sure if it’s really one of Nag’s Head and the Outer Banks or if it’s a more generic Atlantic coast beach house image. It doesn’t feel much different than the memories I have of a friend’s beach house on the coast of southern Maine. And I was pretty unimpressed with the climax and resolution of the story itself. On the other hand, it did provide a good contrast to the poverty and settings of both Where the Crawdads Sing and Over the Plain Houses. There’s more to come for North Carolina. Stay tuned!