Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Book Review - Burnt Mountain by Anne Rivers Siddons
I’m not generally a fan of Anne Rivers Siddons’ work simply because the subject matter of her novels doesn’t really entice me, but I’ve always thought she was a very gifted writer. Burnt Mountain, however, promised to be a very different book than say, Peachtree Road. I knew, though, as soon as I read Burnt Mountain’s Prologue that I was going to have certain problems with the book. I chose to read on, hoping I was wrong.
The Prologue revolves around Thayer Wentworth and her husband, Dr. Aengus O'Neill, as the two are awakened very early one morning by a group of children bound for summer camp. Now Thayer Wentworth is no stranger to summer camps. It seems as though all the meaningful events – both good and bad – of Thayer’s life revolved around a summer camp. Her father’s family owned a cottage on Burnt Mountain, and Thayer’s parents even honeymooned there. Thayer always wanted to believe that the honeymoon was the stuff that dreams are made of, but it was on Burnt Mountain that Thayer’s mother’s dreams were crushed rather than fulfilled. A beautiful Southern woman with “ambitions,” Crystal Thayer married a man from a prominent family for more than love, and he disappointed her when he told her that his ambitions didn’t extend any further than remaining headmaster of the all boys Alexander Hamilton Academy in Lytton, Georgia, a school founded by the Wentworth family. Thayer’s mother promptly turned her attentions from her husband to her eldest daughter, Lily. Lily was a girl who shared the same hopes as her mother; she was a girl Crystal could mold and live through vicariously.
Thayer, who was more of a tomboy, had a strained relationship with her mother, though she idolized her father and her Grandmother Wentworth. Although Crystal didn’t enjoy the days in the beautiful Greek Revival house along the river in Lytton, Thayer thought they were idyllic. When tragedy came into Thayer’s life, it was her Grandmother Wentworth, not her mother, who pulled Thayer through. And, it was at camp, Camp Sherwood Forest, that Thayer met her first love, Nick Abrams, a boy Crystal couldn’t stand. Difficulties arose, however, one of them truly life changing, and when Nick and his father left for a European holiday, Nick and Thayer were parted forever. Or almost. (Not really a spoiler.) Once again, it was Grandmother Wentworth who pulled Thayer from the depths of despair, that time by sending her to college in Tennessee. Thayer realized that while one door was closing for her, another one was opening and she remarked as she left her home, “And Detritus nosed the car out of our driveway and toward the Great Smoky Mountains and the rest of my life.”
It was at college that Thayer met and fell in love with a charismatic Irishman, Dr. Aengus O’Neill, a professor at the school and a student of Irish and Celtic Folklore. Aengus was a romantic, Irish soul himself, and he seemed to be everything Thayer could ever want in a mate. Crystal disapproved, of course, and even Grandmother Wentworth had her reservations, telling Thayer there was something “dark” about Aengus, but he and Thayer married anyway, and the “real” story of Burnt Mountain began. Unfortunately, it’s also the place where Burnt Mountain begins to fall apart.
Although Siddons attempted, in her Prologue, to set up a dramatic turn of events surrounding one of her characters (and I do applaud her for that), I don’t believe this turn of events is believable. The change in the character was too abrupt. Readers are, I think, left saying, “Oh, that would never happen!” And really, it doesn't seem like it ever would, and Thayer shouldn’t have been as unhappy as she was. Not at that point in the story. To make matters even worse, Siddons allows Thayer to “unexpectedly” run into Nick as he prepares to work on a project in Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Olympics. I found that unbelievable as well. And what is the year supposed to be anyway? Various references in the book place the story in the 1950s or, at the latest, the 1960s. However, besides the Summer Olympics, Siddons has one character talk about taking a child to see a Harry Potter film, and not necessarily the first one. (The first Harry Potter film wasn’t released until 2001.) I realize a significant chunk of time could have passed by between Thayer’s childhood and her marriage, but not thirty or forty years. Even if a reader isn’t bothered by the abrupt shift in time, many of the characters in Burnt Mountain use cellular phones, which weren’t so prevalent in the 1990s. And there’s a subplot involving a neighbor of Thayer’s, Carol, and Carol’s three sons. This seemed like it was going to be an interesting subplot, however far too much was left out. The subplot felt more like an outline than a fully fleshed out story thread.
I’m a reader who can usually overlook some messy plotting if the prose is first rate. And Siddons usually writes lovely prose. So it is in Burnt Mountain, though Siddons can, at times, be a bit overwrought and melodramatic, and melodrama definitely isn’t my “thing.”
Even Thayer wasn’t up to par with the characters Siddons usually creates. She was likable, to a point, but I got tired of her passivity, the fact that she more or less – usually more – drifted through life. She lived to love her father and her grandmother, then Nick, then Aengus. She never lived to love her own life, apart from others. In fact, she seemed to have no life of her own. She wasn’t at all complex.
Regarding the twisted turn the book takes during the last fifty pages or so, perhaps Siddons simply wanted to venture into the Southern Gothic, a genre I love. If she did, I believe Burnt Mountain missed the mark. While the Southern Gothic often incorporates the supernatural, one of the key components of the genre is deeply flawed characters and decayed, claustrophobic settings, often linked to racism, poverty, or violence. While these elements can enhance Southern literature, if they aren’t organic everything seems out of kilter. This was the case with Burnt Mountain. The book's Southern Gothic elements seemed imposed on the story as opposed to the early “Tennessee” novels of Cormac McCarthy or the work of that master of the Southern Gothic, William Faulkner.
Although parts of the book were very good, and were beautifully written, the ending seemed “tacked on” despite the foreshadowing in the Prologue. The ending was weird and twisted and downright evil, and the rest of the book simply was not. And, in a book replete with ancient folklore, why is no explanation, supernatural or otherwise, given for the “curse” that haunts Burnt Mountain, itself?
Despite the problems with the book, I did, at times, love its darkness, and I loved the descriptions of the rural Georgia landscape. But these things, however, can’t carry an entire novel.
If you’re an Anne Rivers Siddons fan and want to read everything she writes, you might enjoy this book, though be warned, it’s very different from most of her work, and it’s certainly not her best effort. If you’ve never read Siddons and want to give her a try, please don’t begin with this book. Try Peachtree Road or Colony or Outer Banks, instead.
Recommended: Sadly, no. I rarely say this about any book because we all like something a little different and “good” writing has a strong subjective component, but this book really is a waste of time. Even most Siddons fans don’t care for it. Try Peachtree Road, Colony, or Outer Banks, instead. I'll say this, this is one instance in which I think the cover was absolutely perfect for the story the book tells. I loved it.