Anne Rivers Siddons penned a wonderful novel called “Hill Towns” in 1993. I read this awesome book then; I just finished reading it again. Yes, it is that good.
The first time I read this story, I had yet to discover the Tuscany hills of Italy. So, I loved living vicariously through the colorful and flawed characters who make this story such an adventure. Four years ago, Jack and I had the good fortune to spend almost a month zipping around the small hill towns and wineries in Tuscany. Then went on to slide into Venice via the train. Looking at the cover of the old hardback book, I see much of the view we actually saw from the window of our ancient hotel in Montalcino. I even have video footage with audio of this. One of the smartest things we’ve done.
Siddons begins her unique and quirky novel in the hills of Tennessee. Specifically, on one hilltop, one that Cat has lived on her entire life, has in fact never left. And we begin to find out why. A personal tragedy happened when Cat was five. It will haunt her forever. And change the way she lives her life and sees or not sees the world.
I hadn’t remembered how sexual this novel was, but it has plenty of sensual moments. And sex plays a large part in the telling of the story since it is one of the causes of the “tragedy.”
When Cat and her husband Joe decide to accompany a young couple to Italy to celebrate their wedding, we see the beginning of the larger picture. From the time Cat and Joe arrive in Rome my mind catches fire. I become so into the story that I begin flying through the pages. The author’s depiction of Rome, Florence, the hill towns of Tuscany, and the city of Venice are all so keen. This is what I have been looking for; a story that is Italy.
No slouch in the character department, Siddons begins rolling out her characters bigger than life. Sam Forrest is a famous artist who is in a slump, living as an ex-pat in Rome with his manipulative wife Ada. You will not know what to think of Ada at first. Sam, on the other hand, is exactly what he seems: a broad man full of himself, and in need of that special something to make his next project happen. Maria and Colin are the happy couple getting married. And, Yolanda is a trampy Martha Stewart wanna-be who tags along to help move the story along. The story is told in Cat’s voice.
Much change occurs in each of their lives in Italy. Cat grows and grows. How Joe handles this will steer them on the path for the rest of their lives. Much is said about how Americans act in Italy. Sam and Ada are cash cows for the others here. They upgrade hotels, treat at expensive and famous restaurants, and in general begin to take over the trip making the others feel a bit out of control.
When Sam decides early on to use Cat as his newest subject and come out of his slump by painting her, the flames begin to climb higher. Yolanda becomes a force to be reckoned with. Ada becomes even more tangible, and Joe shows another side to himself, not necessarily a good side. Meanwhile, the newlyweds are busy sorting out their own woes; ones they had not expected.
I loved the drive through the hills, the very real visits to the cities, the bottles of wine drunk at lunch and dinner and all parts in between. I loved the way Siddons depicts Venice. It is the Venice Jack and I saw; not always the breathtaking beauty, she allowed us to see it with flaws. And that she brought us St. Zita, the patron saint of bridges. Siddons showed the windows of gold on the Ponte Vecchio just the way they are to this day. She also took me back through the narrow, twisting roads leading through Greve, so that I was able to relive them totally. She showed us the ubiquitous Tuscan pines that we photographed everywhere we went. And I loved the way the story culminates. Sometimes, rereading a great novel is the only way you feel like going. It sure worked for me this time.