Siddons, (Sybil) Anne Rivers 1936-
SIDDONS, (Sybil) Anne Rivers 1936-
PERSONAL: Born January 9, 1936, in Atlanta, GA; daughter of Marvin (an attorney) and Katherine (a secretary; maiden name, Kitchens) Rivers; married Heyward L. Siddons (a business partner and creative director), 1966; children: (stepsons) Lee, Kemble, Rick, David. Education: Auburn University, B.A.A., 1958; attended Atlanta School of Art, c. 1958. Hobbies and other interests: Swimming, cooking, reading, cats.
ADDRESSES: Home—3767 Vermont Rd. NE, Atlanta, GA 30319; (summer) Osprey Cottage, Brooklin, ME
CAREER: Writer. Worked in advertising with Retail Credit Co., c. 1959, Citizens & Southern National Bank, 1961-63, Burke-Dowling Adams, 1967-69, and Burton Campbell Advertising, 1969-74. Senior editor, Atlanta, 1964-67. Full-time writer, 1974—. Member of governing board, Woodward Academy; member of publications board and arts and sciences honorary council, Auburn University, 1978-83.
AWARDS, HONORS: Alumna achievement award in arts and humanities, Auburn University, 1985; Georgia Author of the Year, 1988; honorary doctorate in Humanities, Oglethorpe University, 1991.
Heartbreak Hotel, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1976.
The House Next Door (horror), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1978.
Fox's Earth, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1981.
Homeplace, Harper (New York, NY), 1987.
Peachtree Road, Harper (New York, NY), 1988.
King's Oak, Harper (New York, NY), 1990.
Outer Banks, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1991.
Colony, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1992.
Hill Towns, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1993.
Downtown, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1994.
Fault Lines, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1995.
Up Island, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1997.
Low Country, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1998.
Nora, Nora, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
Islands, Harper Collins (New York, NY), 2004.
John Chancellor Makes Me Cry (essays), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1975, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1992.
Go Straight on Peachtree (guide book), Dolphin Books (New York, NY), 1978.
Contributor to Gentleman's Quarterly, Georgia, House Beautiful, Lear's, Reader's Digest, Redbook, and Southern Living.
ADAPTATIONS: Heartbreak Hotel was adapted as the film Heart of Dixie, Orion Pictures, 1989.
SIDELIGHTS: Novelist Anne Rivers Siddons identifies herself as an author of the South—an author of Atlanta in particular. "Everything I know and do is of here, of the South," she said in an interview in Southern Living. Her novels are most often concerned with the lives of Southern women; more recent books have occasionally transplanted these characters to other locales. Wherever they find themselves, however, Siddons's women must explore more than their surroundings: they must come to terms with their own lives and gain strength in the process. A Booklist reviewer once noted, "Siddons has had a solid winning streak with her seductive portrayals of plucky southern gals holding their own in alien territory…. What's intriguing about Siddons is how much she transcends the usual parameters of fluff fiction, both in terms of literary finesse and penetrating intelligence."
Oddly enough, the famed fiction writer's first book, John Chancellor Makes Me Cry, is a collection of essays. The book chronicles one year of her life in Atlanta, humorously reflecting on the frustrations and joys of day-to-day living—serving jury duty, hosting parties, and taking care of a husband suffering with the flu. The author's style in John Chancellor Makes Me Cry has been favorably compared to that of Erma Bombeck, whose own review of the book praised Siddons: "She is unique. She's an original in her essays that combine humor, intimacy, and insight into a marriage." Bombeck found the most "poignant and very real" chapter to be the one describing "the month [Siddons's] husband lost his job, her Grandmother died, a Siamese cat they were keeping for a friend was hit by a car, their house was burgled and their Persian cat contracted a fifty-dollar-a-week disease."
Siddons soon found a home in fiction. The House Next Door, Siddons's tale of an affluent couple whose lives are changed by the mysterious evils occurring in a neighboring house, was praised by Stephen King. In Stephen King's Danse Macabre, King's critique on the horror genre, King devoted an entire chapter to an analysis of The House Next Door, comparing it to Shirley Jackson's Haunting of Hill House. Siddons, in an interview in Publishers Weekly, called the book "something of a lark. It's different from anything I've ever written, or probably ever will. But I like to read occult, supernatural stories. Some of the world's great writers have written them, and I guess I wanted to see what I could do with the genre." In the St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, and Gothic Writers, Brian Stableford called the book "a far more adventurous and interesting work than the rash of schlocky haunted-house movies which came soon after."
More recent Siddons novels, such as Homeplace and Peachtree Road, won greater favor with critics and became best-sellers. Noted Bob Summers in Publishers Weekly, Homeplace "struck a national chord" with its account of an independent Southern-born woman returning home after more than twenty years. Peachtree Road is Siddons's "love letter to Atlanta," according to Chicago Tribune contributor Joyce Slater. "Siddons does an admirable job of tracing the city's rebirth after World War II without idealizing it." Slater concluded that Peachtree Road is Siddons's "most ambitious [book] to date."
Siddons's first novel set outside the South, Colony, is the saga of the family of a Carolinian woman who has been transplanted by marriage into the Brahmin milieu of a coastal Maine retreat. As a young bride, heroine Maude Gascoigne detests her new summer home and its people, but with the passing decades she grows to love it enough to fight hard to pass it on to her granddaughter. Joan Mooney, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called Maude "a match for anything that's thrown her way—and plenty is." Others have also praised Siddons's development of character in Colony. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly deemed the novel "a page-turner by virtue of realistic characters who engage the reader's affection and concern," though Booklist contributor Denise Blank observed that "although her verbal artistry cannot be denied, Siddons never quite captures the feel of a place or a person—one is left with the impression of a very pretty painting that looks much like other very pretty paintings."
In her next novel, Hill Towns, Siddons again sends a Southern woman into new territory, this time even farther afield. Cat Gaillard suffers from what Chicago Tribune reviewer Joyce R. Slater termed "reverse acrophobia." She is only comfortable at heights that allow her to see for miles around her. She is also agoraphobic and is finally lured from a hermetic existence in her Appalachian lookout by an invitation to a wedding in Italy. Rome, Venice, and Tuscany have the expected loosening effect on Cat, though she and her husband "will not be corrupted by decadent Europeans, but by their fellow countrymen altered by extended sojourns abroad," according to Elaine Kendall in the Los Angeles Times. Among these are a famous expatriate painter and his wife, who work their separate wiles on Cat and her husband, Joe. Yet Cat pulls back from the brink. In the words of Slater, "Italy and the charismatic painter, Sam Forrest, are nearly Cat's undoing. Nearly."
Many reviewers identify Siddons's greatest strength in Hill Towns as her characterization. Writing for the Washington Post, Natalie Danford claimed that the author's "portrayals of people … are often stunning." Slater too praised Siddons in this regard, writing that she "sensitively describes the confusion of a woman who opts to travel from an existence of academic, almost Elysian perfection to one of the steamiest, most chaotic cities in the world."
Downtown, Siddons's 1994 novel set in the mid-1960s, is admittedly autobiographical. The circumstances that surround its main character, Smoky O'Donnell, a twenty-six-year-old ingenue with the dream and drive to succeed as a writer for Atlanta's trendiest magazine, mirror those of Siddons's own past. As a writer for Downtown magazine, Smoky sees the ups and downs of life in Atlanta at a time when "promises … hung in the bronze air like fruit on the eve of ripeness." For Smoky some of these promises are kept, but others, such as the promise that brightens within her growing awareness of the civil rights movement, are shot down as the decade approaches its close.
Critical reaction to Downtown was mixed. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote of being "disappointed in [Siddons's] uninspired and often pretentious story line," and Jean Hanff Korelitz complained in the Washington Post Book World that Smoky's "responses are so predictable and her path to adulthood so well-worn that we can't escape feeling that we have already read this novel, that only the names and locations have been changed." Both reviewers nevertheless responded favorably to Siddons's evocation of the ambience of Atlanta in the 1960s.
One recurring theme in Siddons's work is the family crisis that forces a "comfortable" woman to assess the silent damage done by untreated psychic wounds. In Fault Lines, for instance, Merritt Fowler is caught in a series of midlife crises: her husband is a possibly philandering workaholic, her sixteen-year-old anorexic daughter, Glynn, is caught up in teenage rebellion, and her mother-in-law is afflicted with Alzheimer's and needs constant care. When Glynn runs away to her Aunt Laura's home in Northern California, Merritt follows, determined to save her daughter and herself. When Merritt, Laura, and Glynn unite, they take a trip to the Santa Cruz mountains in an attempt to leave their troubles behind. The trip marks a shift in Merritt's life as she begins to evolve out of the dutiful wife mindset. The earth shifts as well, and as the three women seek safety, they learn valuable lessons about themselves and each other. One reviewer wrote in Contemporary Southern Writers, "In Fault Lines, Siddons avoids fluff fiction with her excellent landscapes and characters, who are believable and for whom we care." Siddons's thirteenth novel, Low Country, reveals how socialite Caroline Venable is forced to choose between her marriage and privileged lifestyle and her deep devotion to Peacock Island, a wild, offshore island on which her grandfather had lived. Carol's husband of twenty-five years, Clay, owns a land-developing business and wants to turn her family's native tribal settlement land into a theme park. When she discovers his plan, she must fight him to protect the beloved wild ponies that grace her island. She also struggles with the accidental drowning of her daughter, five years prior, and the desire to drink away her problems. "Familiar ground for the prolific Siddons … though her latest saga of the South replaces gothic melodrama with well-honed emotion," observed a Kirkus correspondent in a review of Low Country. The reviewer described the book as "a delicate, compelling tale, full of real feeling and lush description."
In a 1994 interview for the Atlanta Journal & Constitution, Siddons hinted that she was finished writing about Atlanta, although she toyed with the possibility of setting a future book in the nearby affluent enclave of Cobb County. Since then she has shown little inclination to cut her ties to the South, and—with hard-cover and paperback sales in the millions—she has reason to stay the course. Stableford commended the author for her ability "to flay the skin of illusion from the moral pretensions of the American south" in her best work. In Southern Living Siddons commented, "I have found I can move anywhere in my fiction. If I take it from the point of view of a Southerner traveling there, it's still an honest point of view."
True to her word, Siddons's millennium novel Nora, Nora is set instead in the small, 1960s, segregated town of Lytton, Georgia. The main character is a twelve-year-old girl named Peyton McKenzie. Peyton endures many internal struggles, the biggest of which is the guilt she feels for "killing her mother" when she first came into the world. Peyton is a member of the Losers Club, whose other two members are the town grave keeper and the black housekeeper's handicapped son. It is only in this environment, and with this definition of herself, that she feels comfortable. Then her twenty-nine-year-old distant cousin Nora Findlay comes to Lytton to teach, and sets in motion the upheaval of Peyton's—and Lytton's—world. Nora is much different than anyone Peyton has known in her limited experience. Nora smokes, drinks, and engages in several other behaviors considered improper for a woman of her time, including advocating for drastic changes in the small town. Her bold red hair, pink Thunderbird convertible, and radical, integrated classrooms draw negative attention from Lytton citizens, who impatiently wait for Nora to self-destruct so they may be rid of her. But to Peyton, Nora's presence is a valuable one, as Peyton needs a catalyst to set her in motion and on the way to adulthood. Nora unearths qualities Peyton never realized she possessed: beauty, writing talent, and the possibility of a happy life. Nora removes Peyton's guilt and begins to teach Peyton how to love, beginning with herself. Even Peyton's father, who has lived in a shell since his wife's death, starts to come around under Nora's bright, nurturing glow. But darkness must inevitably fall, and Peyton starts to feel that Nora is hiding something unpleasant. When Nora's shocking secret is finally revealed, Peyton learns her most valuable lesson of love.
"Siddons's prose is so graceful, and lovely, that after diving in, the reader is carried along effortlessly and with great pleasure," praised Carol J. Bissett in a review of Nora, Nora for Library Journal. Bissett also pointed out the book's similarities and reference to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and called the book "a completely satisfying and nourishing read, containing both style and substance." Not all critics were satisfied with Siddons's thematic distance from her previous novels. "Though Siddons doesn't deliver any thematic surprises in the well-worn genre," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "she does offer a neatly competent and engrossing story that captures the reader's sympathies despite its quality of déjà vu, as she conjures up the social and racial attitudes of a small Southern town in the 1960s." In Booklist, Vanessa Bush described Nora, Nora as "a solid novel about growing up, daring to love, and weathering life's disappointments."
Though many reviewers have compared Siddons's writing and subject matter to those of Margaret Mitchell, Siddons doesn't see her writings as romanticized, but rather realistic. "It's like an old marriage or a long marriage," she once said about her relationship with the South and its portrayal in her novels. "The commitment is absolute, but the romance has long since worn off. … I want to write about it as it really is."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Popular Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Contemporary Southern Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
King, Stephen, Stephen King's Danse Macabre, Everest House (New York City), 1981.
St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, and Gothic Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Atlanta Journal & Constitution, October 9, 1988; July 14, 1991, p. N8; June 26, 1992, p. P1; June 28, 1992, p. N9; June 5, 1994, p. M1, p. N10.
Booklist, May 1, 1987, p. 948; July, 1988, p. 1755; August, 1990, p. 2123; June 1, 1991, p. 1843; November 15, 1991, p. 638; April 15, 1992, Denise Blank, review of Colony, p. 1643; March 15, 1993, p. 1369; May 1, 1993, p. 1548; February 15, 1994, Nancy McCray, sound recording review of Heartbreak Hotel, p. 1100; May 15, 1994, Donna Seaman, review of Downtown, p. 1645; May 15, 1995, Nancy McCray, sound recording review of John Chancellor Makes Me Cry, p. 1664; September 1, 1995, Joanne Wilkinson, review of Fault Lines, p. 7; April 15, 1997, Mary Frances Wilkins, review of Up Island, p. 1365; June 1, 1998, Brad Hooper, review of Low Country, p. 1671; June 1, 2000, Vanessa Bush, review of Nora, Nora, p. 1799; March 1, 2001, audiobook review of Nora, Nora, p. 1296.
Bookwatch, October, 1991, p. 6; August, 1992, p. 6.
Chicago Tribune, June 14, 1987; November 11, 1988, Joyce Slater, review of Peachtree Road; July 25, 1993, p. 6.
Chicago Tribune Book World, June 28, 1981.
Christian Science Monitor, July 1, 1994, p. 10.
Entertainment Weekly, November 3, 1995, Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, review of Fault Lines, p. 61; June 6, 1997, Vanessa V. Friedman, review of Up Island, p. 63; August 11, 2000, "The Week," review of Nora, Nora, p. 76.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 1987, p. 510; August 1, 1988, p. 1093; August 1, 1990, p. 1038; June 1, 1991, p. 692; May 1, 1992, p. 564; April 15, 1993, p. 484; May 1, 1994, p. 587; June 1, 1998.
Kliatt, spring, 1985, p. 18; July, 1994, p. 89; January, 1995, p. 52; March, 1995, p. 53; September, 2001, audiobook review of Nora, Nora, p. 54.
Library Journal, June 15, 1975, p. 1211; April 1, 1987, p. 165; August, 1990, p. 145; October 1, 1991, p. 159; September 15, 1992, p. 108; August, 1993, p. 178; October 15, 1993, p. 110; June 15, 1994, p. 97; November 15, 1994, p. 106; October 1, 1998, Mark Pumphrey, sound recording review of Low Country, p. 150; July, 2000, Carol J. Bissett, review of Nora, Nora, p. 143; October 1, 2000, Lane Anderson, review of The House Next Door, p. 176; January 1, 2001, Adrienne Furness, audio-book review of Nora, Nora, p. 186.
Locus, January, 1990, p. 52.
Los Angeles Times, September 3, 1993, p. E6.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 18, 1988, p. 10; September 16, 1990, p. 8; August 4, 1991, p. 3; October 3, 1993, p. 8; July 10, 1994, p. 14.
New York Times, September 16, 1989.
New York Times Book Review, April 13, 1975, p. 18; September 12, 1976; October 23, 1977; December 10, 1978; August 30, 1987, Robin Bromley, review of Homeplace, p. 20; August 14, 1988, p. 26; January 1, 1989, p. 14; November 4, 1990, Gene Lyons, "She Didn't Hate Herself in the Morning," p. 33; August 2, 1992, p. 20; December 10, 1995, Sarah Ferguson, review of Fault Lines.
People, September 16, 1991, Cynthia Sanz, "Ring out the Belles," pp. 101-102; May 5, 1997, review of Up Island, p. 194; June 9, 1997, Kim Hubbard, review of Up Island, p. 33; July 31, 2000, "Pages," Erica Sanders, review of Nora, Nora, p. 41.
Publishers Weekly, May 1, 1987, p. 55; August 5, 1988, p. 72; November 18, 1988, Bob Summer, interview with Siddons, pp. 55-56; November 3, 1989, p. 88; February 2, 1990, sound recording review of Peachtree Road, p. 50; August 3, 1990, Sybil Steinberg, review of King's Oak, p. 62; May 31, 1991, review of Outer Banks, p. 61; March 30, 1992, pp. 21-26; May 18, 1992, p. 57; May 25, 1992, review of Colony, p. 57; May 24, 1993, review of Hill Towns, p. 67; May 23, 1994, review of Downtown, pp. 76-77; August 14, 1995, review of Fault Lines, p. 69; May 5, 1997, review of Up Island, p. 194; May 25, 1998, review of Low Country p. 63; June 12, 2000, review of Nora, Nora, p. 52; July 31, 2000, Daisy Maryles, "Women, Women, Women," p. 21.
Reader's Digest, January, 1987, pp. 53-55.
Southern Literary Journal, spring, 1985, Lamar York, "From Hebe to Hippolyta: Anne River Siddons's Novels," pp. 91-99.
Southern Living, October, 1987, p. 96; March, 1991, p. 118; December, 1991, p. 83; September, 1994, Dianne Young, "Words of Home," pp. 100-102.
Town & Country, March, 1993, p. 76.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), June 14, 1987, p. 7; November 25, 1990, p. 4; July 25, 1993, p. 6.
USA Today, July 17, 1991, p. D5; August 1, 1991, p. D1.
Washington Post, August 3, 1987; July 28, 1991, p. July 13, 1993, p. E2.
Washington Post Book World, July 28, 1991, p. 1; June 12, 1994, Jean Hanff Korelitz, review of Downtown, p. 8; June 17, 2001, review of Colony, p. 4.
Woman's Journal, February, 1995, p. 13.
AllReaders.com, http://www.allreaders.com/ (November 17, 2003), Jennifer Kirkman, reviews of Up Island, King's Oak, Fox's Earth, Colony, Nora, Nora, and Outer Banks.
Book Haven, http://thebookhaven.homestead.com/ (November 17, 2003), Amy Coffin, review of Nora, Nora.
BookPage.com, http://www.bookpage.com/ (November 17, 2003), Lynn Hamilton, review of Nora, Nora; Alice Cary, "Anne Rivers Siddons Preserves Natural Treasures in Low Country" (interview).
BookReporter.com, http://www.bookreporter.com/ (November 17, 2003), "Anne Rivers Siddons."
Harper Collins Web site, http://www.harpercollins.com/ (November 17, 2003).*