HOMEPLACE Anne Rivers Siddons Harper & Row. 330 pp. $17.95
You can take the belle out of the South but you can't take the South out of the belle, or so Anne Rivers Siddons maintains in her latest novel "Homeplace," a romance that will keep you swinging in the hammock for a lazy afternoon or two. Not that Siddons' heroine Micah Winship, or Mike as everyone calls her, has ever been much of a belle. She's another kind of southern woman, the eccentric misfit who ignores the conventions of gentility, rebels against her family and makes a beeline for self-fulfilment, usually in the North. She leaves everyone back home in the dust, until she feels the pull of her roots and decides she can go home again.
The return of the prodigal is an old story, and Siddons' rendition has a satisfying, if somewhat predictable, rhythm to it.
Micah, a crack journalist at a career hiatus and childless for the summer as her daughter visits her ex-husband, decides to return temporarily to her small Georgia home town to help nurse her dying father. Their last conversation was 22 years ago -- during a stormy meeting in the front hall after Micah's release from jail following an Atlanta civil rights demonstration. That scene, in which Micah had been first disowned by her father and then betrayed by her sweetheart, had catapulted her into a new life with no ties and no responsibilities to what she had been, or so she has imagined for all these years.
When she returns to Georgia -- not out of a sense of duty, but because it is convenient -- she has built a substantial career, lives a semibohemian life in Greenwich Village with her daughter and accommodates "a pleasant and honorable succession of lovers ... She juggled the shining balls of her life faultlessly." She arrives at the Atlanta airport in Italian shoes, linen and silk, and with an ineffable sense of superiority and a determination not to become emotionally involved with anything or anyone in Lytton, Ga.
The story, of course, is about how she fails in that determination.
The South Micah returns to is not the one she left. What was once Georgia hill country has now become the Sun Belt; real estate is hot and Lytton's yuppies wear chinos and Docksiders like yuppies everywhere. This new South is epitomized by Bayard Sewell, Micah's old sweetheart, now a successful state politician and real estate mogul married to a sickly, alcoholic wife. He and Mike rekindle their affair, and for most of the summer their passion rivals anything Lytton can produce in the heat wave department.
Bay's foil -- for in every romantic novel there must be one -- is Sam Canaday, a "lank-haired, slow smiling" country preacher-turned-lawyer who's been engaged by old John Winship to protect his interests in a piece of property on the edge of town -- the "homeplace" of the book's title -- which the department of transportation wants to take by eminent domain for a superhighway interchange. For both men business has gradually grown to be a pleasure, and Sam seems to spend as much time in the Winship household looking after the older man's health as he does in his one-room law office looking after his legal affairs.
Micah regards Sam first with loathing, then distrust, gradually with toleration, and by the novel's end as something of a savior. For things in Lytton, Ga., and the house on Pomeroy Street are never quite what they appear. Micah's sister DeeDee, who plays the martyred stay-at-home daughter, is not as devoted as she has always seemed. Neither is Bay Sewell quite the straight arrow the townsfolk imagine. Sam Canaday, who affects the shambling attitude of a country boy, is about as dumb as a fox. Only Duck, DeeDee's husband, is exactly the scumball he appears to be.
Siddons is a fine teller of tales, and some of her best she embeds in the main narrative of "Homeplace" -- the spare narrative of Micah's past, for instance, Sam's riveting account of his involvement in the civil rights movement during the early '60s and the high price he paid for that experience, Old John Winship's memories of life as a boy on the old homeplace. She can create some wonderfully colorful characters -- like Priss Comfort, Micah's high school English teacher, mentor, surrogate mother, who acts as a sort of Greek chorus, always keeping the novel's action in perspective. Siddons' problem is control. "Homeplace" founders, more than once and particularly at its conclusion, on the shoals of melodrama.
Justice is done in this novel, crimes are paid for, redemption achieved. And by the time we've turned the last page and the hammock has ceased to rock, some of the old wisdom about human nature and love has been reaffirmed. In Siddons' world the genuine triumphs over the sham; the trivial falls down before the significant. And needless to say, love conquers all. Of course that's why we escaped to read in the hammock in the first place. The reviewer is managing editor of Book World.