Sunday, March 6, 2011

Outer Banks by Anne Rivers Siddons

Outer Banks by Anne Rivers Siddons

I would like to claim to be immune to the considerable power of Anne Rivers Siddons. When looking at her novel, Outer Banks, from a detached perspective, you can find a lot of problems: plot holes, shallow characterizations, overblown prose, cheap emotional gimmicks.

But who am I kidding. I was still up until midnight reading and was completely unable to get the book and its characters out of my mind. Siddons is an unsophisticated storyteller and shamelessly manipulative, but it works, dammit.

Outer Banks is the story of four women who meet as Southern sorority sisters in the early '60s: Kate, the depression-prone narrator, Cecie, her devoted best friend, Ginger, a sensual, childish heiress and Fig, a strange, overeager girl with a sinister side. They part after college only to reunite thirty years later under the weight of old betrayals, new secrets and mysterious circumstances.

Siddons is a good storyteller, no question. Her style is inelegant and a lot of her choices are questionable, but she pulls you into her world from the first chapter and keeps you there. She's highly accomplished at convincing readers that she's subtler and more profound than she really is.

Her characters, for instance, are not really very deep or complicated, but they are drawn with such strength and clarity that they sometimes appear to be. Cecie, for instance (my personal favorite of the four), doesn't really develop much beyond her initial characteristics. It's the forcefulness of the characterization that makes her so lovable, not its psychological complexity.

The story can get pretty soap opera at times, particularly in the segments involving the Kate/Ginger/Paul Sibley love triangle. Siddons balances the soap with certain realistic touches, which distract us from the fact that she's using every emotionally manipulative trick in the book to get a reaction out of the reader.

You could argue that emotional manipulation has been a part of storytelling since Homer realized that his audience loved the phrase, 'rosy-fingered dawn' and it is. All good storytelling is the manipulation of emotions, but Siddons is far too un-subtle, about it. She'll use suicide, cancer, dead children, stolen loves and alcoholism in her slightly shameless attempt to get her readers to feel something.

This is a tactic that a lot of terrible authors use, but Siddons is just good enough to make it work. Her prose can be overblown and melodramatic (and the woman has an unholy love of ellipses), but there's enough truth and honesty in her story to make it work. Nobody is going to nominate her for a Pulitzer any time soon, but she gets the job done. One of the few truly lovely ideas that she puts forth is her stirring concept of 'the abyss':

I had no name for it then, but I already knew the awful hollowness under my feet that meant bottomless emptiness, and I knew the smell of it. It was like the cold wet air that coils up from a dead black well. I could smell the breath from my own private pit and I could even smell it about others. There is a fraternity of us, the abyss walkers. In our eyes, the world is divided by it, made up of those who walk frail, careening rope bridges over the abysses and those who do not. We know each other. I do not think it is a conscious thing with us, this knowing, at least not most of the time, or we would flee from each as from monsters. It is an animal thing. It is only on that wild old neck-prickling level that we meet. It is only in our eyes that we acknowledge that our twin exhalations have touched and mingled. Sometimes, though not often, one of the others, the non-abyss people, will know us, too. You may even know the feeling yourself; you may have met someone about whom otherness clings like a miasma; you can feel it on your skin though you can't name it. When that happens, you have met one of us. You may even be one of us, down deep and in secret. As the old women in Kenmore say, it takes one to know one. Being able to feel it is not a good sign. The other half of the world, the solid, golden half, the non-abyssers. . . they feel nothing under their feet but solidity. They inherit the earth. We inherit the wind. --- (pages 26-27)

Siddons may have a few moments of beauty or true insight, but her true gift is her ability to make you care. Despite the novel's many flaws and errors (including a faux-thriller ending that doesn't really fit), she makes you genuinely care about her characters, and to truly believe in their struggles, overdramatic and overstated as they may be.

In fact, Siddons rather reminds me of Stephenie Meyer, another author who tells good stories with a strong streak of romance, without technically being very good. Outer Banks would not hold up to intense scrutiny and wouldn't win any writing prizes, but it grips you with its strength and conviction, and doesn't let you stumble into the light until it's all over.

And no, those are not crumpled-up Kleenex in my trash can, dammit.

NEXT UP: Tess Gerritsen's medical thriller Life Support.

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