Anne Rivers Siddons.
400 pages. $19.95.
"Outer Banks" spins the reader through a kaleidoscope of places: Alabama, Virginia, Long Island, Cape Cod and North Carolina's Outer Banks. Time also travels as the main character, Kate Abrams, moves through childhood (rapidly) into her college years (more lingeringly), then into her married years as 'u successful interior designer and mother, and finally into the climactic reunion of her suitemates more than 25 years after their graduation.
As always, Ms. Siddons provides a fast-paced novel of lively characters, a plot with a multitude of questions to find answers for, and an emphasis on place that almost makes it another character. In "Peachtree Road" and "King's Oak," the social and moral dilemmas of the South Ms. Siddons knows so well are wrought in storytelling that reads like legend, boring deep into the reader's consciousness, stirring this reviewer's Northern sympathies until I felt I knew the South.
However, "Outer Banks," for all its traveling to and advertising of place, really takes us nowhere specific. The characters could have lived their tiffs, tragedies and horrors anywhere -- the South is an added incidental that never really comes alive. This is very disappointing, partly because the Outer Banks is a dream destination for many, heightened by its mysterious isolation. We also are disappointed because Ms. Siddons' strength as a writer lies in her unique way of revealing knowledge of the South. She usually is able to sculpt a place's history, social quirks and moral consciousness so that all its complexities surface to expand the reader's world.
But "Outer Banks" lacks this sympathy for accurate details of place and history. It is passion without compassion. When such depth is withheld from innuendos, the characters become stereotypes. In "Outer Banks," those who suffer this the worst are the Southern families -- those who haven't made it and live only to arrive, their whole lives built on destructive illusions -- and those who have made it and live only to hold on, their whole lives built on destructive illusions.
"Outer Banks" refers not only to North Carolina's ancient, fragile land strips, but also to the fragile lives of the characters. Kate Abrams was raised by a father who cared about where he came from, creating glorified stories of his Southern heritage. In truth, he and his wife were of the poor and struggling class of Mississippi and Alabama. He gave his life to educating his daughter socially and expanding her world to include summer jobs on Cape Cod and college in Virginia. His premature death finds Kate treading water back home at a small college in which one tends to reach destructively inward instead of imaginatively outward.
At Randolph University, Kate meets Cecie, her soul mate, with whom she shares poetry and laughter; Ginger, the kind, slow-witted, rich girl; and Fig Newton, physically repulsive and maddeningly compulsive in her hero-worship of Kate and her diary-keeping. Kate meets and falls in love with Paul Sibley, an American Indian, very poor but also driven to succeed as an architect -- more for the money than for enjoying creating beauty in buildings.
Ginger's money interrupts Pauls and Kate's love; Kate finds a more sure but less passionate love in Alan from Brooklyn; tragedy strikes again in their son's death; finally, Kate, terror-stricken, believes her ovarian cancer, stayed for years by chemotherapy, has come back to kill her.
Then comes the reunion. We see Cecie, distant and widowed; Ginger, a desperate alcoholic; Paul, estranged from Ginger and anyone that threatens his survival instinct; Kate, afraid to let herself be happy; and Fig Newton, now a best-selling romance writer and physically made over into a beauty.
Since this fivesome has never struggled with honesty before, their separate hidden realities are even more terrifying. The outer banks of these characters' lives are about to be sucked into the sea's abyss by the curious duel between love and hate that takes place both within a person and between persons. This is a compelling theme, but it is not successful here because of Ms. Siddons' tendency to overwrite description and underdevelop reality's complexities in place and people.
Ms. Boylan is a writer living in the Washington area.