By Anne Rivers Siddons. Grand Central. 368 pages. $24.99.
Anne Rivers Siddons, who's adept at satisfying anyone with an itch for Southern melodrama, is back. Her latest novel, “Off Season,” rhapsodizes on love, loss and the end of innocence.
Newly widowed after decades of marriage, Lilly Constable McCall retreats to Edgewater, her family's cottage in Maine. Edgewater is situated on a primeval bay where the sea soothes wounded souls. Lilly arrives during the off season, carting only her cat and the silvery dust of her husband's ashes in a bronze urn. Cam had been something of an icon within his and Lilly's circle, a flaming pirate of a man with “blue eyes that could bore a hole in you.” Now, after his death, Lilly still considers him to be her “true north” and spends her Edgewater days talking with the dead Cam and arguing with her cat. Old memories swarm like bees, while an old nemesis and new secrets hover at the periphery.
But before Cam, there was another love in Lilly's life. The year was 1962, a time of great change and even greater possibility. Much of “Off Season” is devoted to the engaging 11-year-old voice of Lilly Constable, who spends her days spying on her mother, nurturing her dream of flying (like a bird, not in an airplane) and basking in the magic that permeates this particular corner of Maine. During her 11th summer, Lilly meets Jon Lowell and falls wholly and completely in love with him, until tragedy strikes.
Her time with Jon, though brief, serves as a watershed in Lilly's life. It's followed by years of great fear and a romantic kind of grief. Siddons not only explores the theme of loss; she transcends it. Lilly loses her first love and then her enigmatic mother. Years later she loses her second love and what she believed to be true about it.
Back within the setting of “Colony,” Siddons' ninth novel, we find that the author is very much at home, once again, in Maine, where she and her husband spend part of each year. As a result, “Off Season” does a credible job of presenting readers with a very distinct time and place. “‘Maine is a wild place, at least this part of it,'” an old friend tells Lilly. “‘Wild things happen, things beyond the ken.'”
Indeed, all the elements of Southern gothic, for which Siddons is renowned, are there: dark magic, familial secrets, a moldering estate (in this case, a cottage) and hints of the supernatural. But this is not quite “Colony,” a rich, sprawling saga that spent months on The New York Times best-seller list. Here, some characters' motivations seem contrived, as do the inevitable revelations at the end.
Still, the book is largely enjoyable, Siddons' storytelling skills are intact, and the pages turn readily enough. The lyrical beauty of Siddons' writing shines, as evidenced by the description of the first meeting between Lilly and Jon: “I had always loved the notion of the solstice. It swam with magic as old as time, with forest things not of our world dancing in moonlit glades, of something wild and enormous and ancient walking the world …. A figure was moving above me on the cliff, a figure that seemed impossibly tall and slender, made of the same luminous mist that crowned the cliff …. Out of the fog came a boy.”
In the end, though, it's the relationship between Lilly and her mother, Elizabeth, an artist, activist and a great beauty, that is most intriguing. Siddons' fans will savor the story long after the last page has turned, and many will undoubtedly pass copies on to friends.