BURNT MOUNTAIN, by Anne Rivers Siddons, July 2011, Grand Central Publishing, $25.99, 323 pages.
Summer camp: a place where food tastes better; sleep is sounder; and the outside world seems far away. In limbo between child and adult, girls and boys swim at noon and tell stories by firelight. Friendships are forged and romances born.
While reliving memories of such lakeside havens with her friends, bestselling novelist Anne Rivers Siddons derived the idea for her 18th novel, “Burnt Mountain.” She and her friends agreed that summer camp — with its hiking trails and creaky bunk beds — had meant more to them than they would have guessed when first unrolling their sleeping bags beside their fellow campers.
“Burnt Mountain” is a coming of age story about Thayer, an independent spirit who feels deeply — both love and sadness. From a wealthy Southern family, Thayer struggles to find herself, haunted by the loss of a family member and her mother’s horrendous act of betrayal.
“For me, books are people to get to know and remember,” said Siddons in a recent phone interview from her home in Brooklin, where she and her husband, Heyward, spend June through October.
Siddons wrote the first chapters of “Burnt Mountain” while at her home in Brooklin, taking breaks to look out her window at the bay. She finished it in Charleston, S.C., her other home. But the story is set in Atlanta, a city she knows better than any other place.
“The mountains are really very near in Atlanta, and the camps are everywhere in the mountains,” said Siddons, a member of the sixth generation of her family to grow up in Atlanta.
From the prologue, Siddons knew who Thayer, the main character, needed to be.
“She would not be a part of a group. She would be alone; and that was so that one person would always matter to her,” Siddons said. “I would say she would be a very nurturing person to know, somebody that would make a great friend. I don’t think I’d peg her as a class clown or a great beauty, but a giver to people.”
In the wake of a great tragedy, Thayer ’s grandmother sends her to Camp Sherwood Forest in the North Carolina mountains as a healthy escape from her inattentive mother, who tends to focus on her lovelier older sister, Lily.
At camp, Thayer, a daddy’s girl and tomboy, discovers her skill at storytelling and horseback riding, but its in meeting Nick Abrams, a boy from a camp across the lake, that she discovers love — and heartbreak.
“Burnt Mountain” is the first novel in which Siddons writes about a woman who experiences two great loves in one lifetime.
“That wasn’t a conscious thing, but once I got in with Nick, I realized he was going to have to go for a while,” said Siddons. “And I just realized that I had never looked at a woman from the point of view of having two major loves — sometimes it’s not all that clear.”
After a tragic episode, one that was difficult for Siddons to write, Thayer marries Aengus, an Irish professor she meets at her mountaintop college. They move to Atlanta, only miles from Camp Edgewood on Burnt Mountain, the second camp to change the course of Thayer’s life. Her past floods back as she’s forced to confront realities about her mother, her first love and her husband.
“I think that if there is a lesson, it’s that the real effects of your earliest loves ought to be considered,” she said.
Siddons writes so poetically of the critical moments in the young woman’s life that even heartbreaking events are delightful to read. She draws readers in with candid and often witty dialogue and surrounds them with detailed descriptions of high society Georgia and the southern mountains. Action and mystery builds throughout the story to a climactic end, both dark and full of magic.
“I like this book,” said Siddons. “Usually, by the end of them, I thoroughly hate all of them… but this one pleases me.”
Siddons has yet to write a sequel to any of her books, so closure at the end of her stories is important. The final scene in “Burnt Mountain” is one of her favorite moments.
“I have always loved that last little bit on the beach,” said Siddons. “It just feels right to me, that it would sum up that way — it gave me real closure to be able to put them somewhere that wasn’t overshadowed by Burnt Mountain.”
Siddons’ previous bestselling novels include “Off Season,” “Sweetwater Creek,” “Islands,” “Nora Nora,” “Low Country,” “Up Island,” “Fault Lines,” “Downtown,” “Hill Towns,” “Colony,” “Outer Banks,” “King’s Oak,” “Peachtree Road,” “Homeplace,” “Fox’s Earth,” “The House Next Door” and “Heartbreak Hotel.”