September 18, 2019

Anne Rivers Siddons, Novelist Whose Muse Was the New South, Dies at 83

Anne Rivers Siddons, Novelist Whose Muse Was the New South, Dies at 83


Anne Rivers Siddons, whose popular novels, set largely in the South, took female characters on emotional journeys that touched on the region’s racial and social attitudes, died on Wednesday at her home in Charleston, S.C. She was 83.

Her stepson David Siddons said the cause was lung cancer.

Ms. Siddons had been an advertising copywriter and a magazine writer when she started writing novels in the 1970s. Her breakthrough, “Peachtree Road” (1988), was a generational saga about Atlanta’s evolution since World War II, told through two cousins.

Ms. Siddons was urged by her friend the writer Pat Conroy to write a novel that would reflect her ambivalence about Atlanta, her adopted home. She had long admired the city’s vigor but felt that its relentless growth had gone too far.

“As Ms. Siddons offered argument after argument about why she couldn’t do the book,” The Atlanta Journal and Constitution wrote in 1988, “she mentioned that a woman friend of hers had just died. ‘The South killed her the day she was born; it just took her that long to die.’”

Hearing that, Mr. Conroy told her, “That’s the opening of your great book about Atlanta.”

It was indeed the first line of the prologue in “Peachtree Road,” in which she replaced “she” with the name of a lead character, Lucy Bondurant Chastain Venable.

“Peachtree Road” invited comparisons to “Gone With the Wind,” an earlier sweeping novel with Atlanta as its backdrop. In his review in The Journal and Constitution, Bob Summer wrote that Ms. Siddons had evoked the city as well as Margaret Mitchell had.

He added, “Ms. Siddons skillfully weaves bright threads of humor, nuance and an exacting observation of the social mores of the times she is writing about; surely she is the Jane Austen of modern Atlanta.”

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CreditHarperCollins

Ms. Siddons defined herself as a storyteller, like Mr. Conroy, and resisted being categorized as a women’s writer. Still, her understanding of women’s struggles imbued all her novels, up through her final one, “The Girls of August” (2014), about a group of longtime friends whose annual oceanfront gathering is shattered when one of them dies.

“All my books are about women taking journeys they might not want to take,” Ms. Siddons told an interviewer in 2008. “It’s about finding wholeness. I know so few families anymore, and how can we have whole families if we don’t have whole women?”

Sybil Anne Rivers was born on Jan 9, 1936, in Fairburn, Ga., a small town about 20 miles southwest of Atlanta. Her father, Marvin, was a patent lawyer, and her mother, Katherine (Kitchen) Rivers, was the secretary to a high school principal.

She was a young Southern belle: a cheerleader and homecoming queen in high school and a popular sorority sister at Auburn University in Alabama. But in 1957, early in the civil rights movement, she broke with custom by writing two columns for the school newspaper supporting integration.

“What we are advocating when we gather in howling mobs like animals and throw stones and wreck automobiles and beat helpless individuals is wrong, and I don’t care from which of the myriad angles you choose to look at it,” she wrote.

She was fired after the second column was published.

(In 2013, Auburn’s College of Liberal Arts named Ms. Siddons the first winner of its Women’s Leadership Institute Lifetime Achievement Award.)

She moved to Atlanta after graduating from Auburn with a bachelor’s degree. There she worked in advertising and as a writer and editor at Atlanta magazine.

“I saw that my writing was a gift and not just a twitch,” she told People magazine in 1991.

Essays and humor pieces that she had written for Atlanta, House Beautiful and Georgia magazines were collected in her first book, “John Chancellor Makes Me Cry,” published in 1975.

Her first novel, “Heartbreak Hotel,” followed a year later. Inspired by her experiences on the college paper at Auburn, it tells the story of a similar act of defiance by a popular sorority sister on the campus of fictional Randolph University in Alabama.

“That book spoke to me,” the novelist Cassandra King, Mr. Conroy’s wife, said by phone. “I thought this was a woman of my generation who had had the courage to do what she had done at Auburn. She really stuck her neck out and took risks.”

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CreditGallery Books

“Heartbreak Hotel” was made into a movie, “Heart of Dixie” (1989), starring Ally Sheedy, Virginia Madsen and Phoebe Cates and directed by Martin Davidson.

Ms. Siddons’s writing career was derailed in the early 1980s by severe depression. She didn’t write for three years, but after being prescribed medication and working with a therapist, she returned with “Homeplace” (1987).

“If I couldn’t write, it would have killed me,” she told BookPage, a book review publication, in 1998.

In all, she wrote 15 more novels, many of which made The New York Times’s best-seller list.

Jamie Raab, who as the president of Grand Central Publishing edited Ms. Siddons’s last three books, said that she had created characters that resonated with her readers.

“When we met, we started talking about her characters like they were personal friends of ours,” Ms. Raab, now the president of Celadon Books, said by phone. “That’s how we bonded.”

Before she died, David Siddons said, Ms. Siddons had thought of an idea for a new novel — about the friendship between a white girl and a black girl at the time of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches in 1965.

In addition to him, Ms. Siddons, who had homes in Charleston and in Brooklin, Me., is survived by three other stepsons, Kem, Rick and Lee Siddons, and three step-grandchildren. Her husband, Heyward Siddons, died in 2014.

Ms. Siddons came to understand that her desire to write was a reaction to her traditional upbringing.

“The South is hard on women,” she told People, “partly because of the emphasis on looks and charm. No matter what I did, I always ended up with this hollow feeling. It finally hit me.

“That’s why I wrote: I am writing about the journey we take to find out what lives in that hole.”



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