Hill Towns

Hill Towns

3.3 9
by Anne Rivers Siddons

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Something terrible happened to Catherine Gaillard when she was a small child - something so traumatic that for thirty years she couldn't bring herself to leave Montview, the cloistered mountaintop college town in Tennessee where she grew up. But she has not missed the "real" world. Cat's life on the mountain has been wonderful. She adores her husband, who buttresses… See more details below


Something terrible happened to Catherine Gaillard when she was a small child - something so traumatic that for thirty years she couldn't bring herself to leave Montview, the cloistered mountaintop college town in Tennessee where she grew up. But she has not missed the "real" world. Cat's life on the mountain has been wonderful. She adores her husband, who buttresses her against the world outside; she cherishes her country garden and her friends from the college. Montview has served her well. Now, for the first time, she and Joe have ventured out of their haven into the careening panorama of Italy to attend the Roman wedding of their Montview friends Colin and Maria. From Rome they will travel to Venice and on through the hill towns of Tuscany, where, Cat feels, she will be up high and safe again. But at first none of Italy seems safe to her. It is frantic and hot; its people seem totally alien, its raw sensuality terrifying. Gradually, however, Cat becomes enthralled by Italy's hectic beauty and vitality. She is seduced by everything: art and architecture, food and wine, the sheer living weight of its history. She burns to share it all with Joe, but as her old fear heals and she grows stronger, he seems to turn away from her. It is almost as if Italy diminishes Joe. The only person Cat feels real connection with is Sam Forrest, a celebrated and charismatic American painter who joins the four Southerners on the trip through the hill towns of Tuscany. As she has done in the past to great acclaim, Anne Rivers Siddons probes deeply into the multiple meanings of love and relationships refracted through the prism of a woman's eyes. Endowed with a marvelous Italian setting and rich, compelling characters, Hill Towns is a rare novel of depth and deliverance. It is the work of a gifted writer at the height of her storytelling powers.

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Editorial Reviews

Donna Seaman
Best-seller Siddons' novels typically focus on the struggle of a southern gal trying to make it in an alien realm. While her latest novel fits this pattern, it ultimately transcends it, as Siddons pushes herself to new heights of intensity and resonance. This complex tour de force begins on a spellbound mountain in Tennessee where Cat's grief over the bizarre death of her parents evolves into a chronic fear of travel. She is unable to leave her mountain sanctuary, a circumstance Joe, her professor husband, seems to fully accept until their brave, blind daughter goes off to college. Inspired, if not shamed, by her daughter, Cat finally confronts her illness and, after therapy, agrees to accompany Joe on an ambitious Italian tour. Their insular marriage will never be the same. Classic innocents abroad, they end up as guests, and pawns, of the Forrests. Sexy, selfish Sam is a world-famous painter; Ada, exquisite and ruthless, is more manager than wife. As Cat lets Sam paint her portrait, altering her sense of her self, and Joe is addled by Ada, they are further discombobulated by the heady atmospheres of Rome, Venice, and the hill towns of Tuscany. Siddons is keenly attuned to the power of these fabled locales and brilliantly describes them as bewitched and perversely saturated with both beauty and death. As Cat struggles against manipulation and deceit, she casts off the chrysalis of her fear, bringing this evocative, intelligent, and classy tale to a grand crescendo.
Kirkus Reviews
Siddons' last big commercial outing (Colony, 1992) was built along a New England-Southern axis. This time, she creates a passel of characters her fans will find reassuringly familiar, and then sends them far out of their ken—to Italy. Catherine Compton—a true Siddons woman in that she can whine engagingly—is from a tiny college town in Tennessee and has a macabre background: her mom and dad died while making love on a bridge. As a result, Cat grows up agoraphobic, refusing to leave the safe, idyllic little world of Trinity College, where her handsome Yankee husband, Joe Gaillard, teaches English. But when Joe's prot�g�, Colin Gerard, plans to get married in Italy, Cat faces her fears, books a flight, and—under the light of an Italian sun—finds everything different. Above all, Joe has a midlife crisis, sparked by the loss of his luggage and fanned by Ada Forrest, the wife of famous painter whom the Gaillards meet in Rome. Meanwhile, Sam Forrest takes a shine to Cat; her "snub, narrow Renaissance look" inspires him artistically, not to mention romantically. The two couples join the newlyweds on a honeymoon stomp across the boot, slurping bellinis at Florian's in Venice, marveling over Michelangelo's David in Florence, and finally holing up at a villa outside Siena. There, Sam reveals the portrait of Cat he's been working on, which portrays her as St. Theresa—though in sexual, not religious ecstasy. Joe is not amused, but the Gaillards will work things out before they head back to Tennessee, with their horizons expanded. Siddons's theme is the moral and psychological ambiguity that arises from American contact with the European other. Henry James did itbetter—with a whole lot more subtlety—but, still, Siddons's tried-and-true fans will be pleased. (First printing of 200,000; Literary Guild Dual Selection for September)

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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4.18(w) x 6.75(h) x 1.08(d)

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Chapter One

When I Was Five Years Old I Made A Coldly Desperate decision to live forever in a town on a hill, and so I have, from that terrible night in June until this one, thirty-seven years and one month later. If it has been bad for me, as many people these days seem to be telling me, I can only consider that anything else at all would have been worse.

"They never saw it coming; they didn't know what hit them," everybody said after my parents were struck and killed by a speeding truck on the old chain bridge over Tolliver's Creek. After that, I knew as simply and unalterably as a child knows anything that staying alive meant always being able to see what was coming. Always knowing what might hit you. So when my father's parents, kind and substantial Virginians from the Tidewater who might have given me every advantage, made to take me home with them after the funeral, I simply screamed and screamed until, in despair, they left me behind with my mother's eccentric people, who lived on the top of the mountain where my parents had died. I had great affection for my Virginia grandparents and little for the erratic, reclusive Cashes, who were strange even in that hill country, where strangeness is king, but the ramshackle, overgrown Cash house commanded the Blue Ridge foothills in all directions. From there I would always know what was coming. From there I would see it long before it saw me.

I could not have explained this at age five, of course; I have only recently become fully aware of it. Then, I only knew that on the mountain I was safe and off it I was not. Everything in my small being strained after mygrandmother and grandfather Compton as they drove away from the sly, sunless home of my Cash grandparents in their sedate old Chrysler that sunny afternoon; I felt as if sunlight and laughter and gentleness and childhood itself were rolling away with them. But the new flatland fear was stronger. When I turned my face into the sagging lap of my grandmother Cash, she thought I wept in sorrow for my parents and said for the first of a thousand times, "That's all right. You done right. You stay here with your own kind. Your mama wouldn't be lyin' there in her grave if she'd of stayed with her own kind."

But I'm not your kind, I remember thinking as clearly as spring water. I don't need you. It's your house I need. It's this mountain.

It was, I realize, an extraordinary insight for a small child. And it did not surface again for more than thirty years. Still, the power of it served. It held me on the Mountain through everything that came afterward, all those years that seem in retrospect to have been lived in a kind of green darkness, until I met Joe Gaillard in my senior year at Trinity College and the last lingering darkness took fire into light.

When I told him about my parents' death — and I remember it was long after I met him, only days before he proposed to me — he cried. I stared at him doubtfully; no one had ever cried upon hearing the manner of their deaths, and some few laughed outright, nervous, swiftly stifled laughter. Even I had not cried after that first obliterating grief. I was not too young to perceive that they had somehow simply died of ludicrousness. I learned early to parrot laughter along with the children at Montview Day School, where my Compton grandparents' absentee largesse sent me, when they taunted me with it: "Cat's mama and daddy fucked themselves to death!" "Hey, Cat! Wanna go out and hump on the bridge?"

Later, when I began to perceive the dim shape of their meaning, I stopped laughing and began fighting. By the time I was ten, I was on the brink of being expelled for aggression. Time and Cora Pierce's influence put a stop to that, but I still hear the laughter sometimes, in the long nights on the Mountain.

"I'm lucky you weren't a serial murderer or a Republican," I told Joe later. "I'd have married you anyway. It's pretty obvious I would have married the first man who didn't wince and grin a shit-faced grin and say, 'Well, at least they died happy.'"

"I wasn't crying for them; they probably did die happy, at that," he said. "I was crying for you. Nobody should laugh at a child's grief. Nobody. Ever."

"Well, it wasn't at my grief, exactly," I said. "It's just — you can see why it's funny, in an awful sort of way, can't you? I mean, there they were out on that bridge, just going to town, and here comes this chicken truck —"

"Nobody," Joe said fiercely. "Never. Not under any circumstance. Jesus Christ, when I think what that laughter must have taught you about the world —"

"It taught me never to screw on bridges," I said, and he did laugh then, the exuberant, froggy laugh that always made people's lips tug up involuntarily at the corners. I knew he was laughing largely because I wanted him to. Joe was a lovely man then, in the supple greenness of his twenties.

My father was a tall fair boy who came to Trinity College because his father and grandfather had come before him; and before them his great-grandfather Cornelius Compton, an Episcopal bishop of modest fame in the South, had helped to found the university. There had been Comptons at Trinity since the beginning.

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