Anne Rivers Siddons has written 18 novels and one book of nonfiction, with many of her books set on one of the beaches of South Carolina. Her latest, "The Girls of August," is another beach read and already climbing up the best-sellers list.
The story centers on four women who get away each summer, leaving husbands and children behind, for a week together. They have done this for 20 years and stopped only when one of them was killed in a tragic accident.
Years later, the husband of the dead woman marries again, and a reunion is arranged at the family home of the new bride. It is a huge old house on a remote barrier island called Tiger Island, so-named for the tiger sharks said to inhabit its beaches.
The new wife, known only as Baby, is a full-figured blonde of 22, with little evidence that she is more than a trophy wife. She is no substitute for Melinda, their dead friend, and, somewhat unreasonably, they blame her for this.
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At first things go uneventfully. They drink a lot and reminisce endlessly about past summers together, but for far too long there is little plot or action. When it finally comes -- well into the book -- it arrives with a bang. The only disagreements grow out of their contempt for Baby. Their remarks are harsh and even insulting, and while Baby shrugs them off at first, they begin to get to her. And they are completely unsettled when she reveals that she speaks Arabic and is clearly more intelligent than she has been willing to admit.
Then they learn she has been staying up all night. They become convinced she is cheating on her husband. There is also a curious episode in which Baby behaves very oddly, and there is some reference to pills she has or has not been taking, but this is dropped.
Now it develops that two of the women have been hiding something. One has caught her husband in bed with another woman and is filing for divorce. The other has breast cancer, which she is hiding from her husband -- even though he is an oncologist. They have been married for more than 25 years, and in her anger and bitterness, she is lashing out at everyone, especially Baby.
Now, with about 50 pages to go, the plot begins to kick in. First they are stalked by a wild ocelot, although he turns out to be a complete mushball. The heroine is attacked by feral pigs, and the colorful old beach house is struck by lightning and bursts into flames. Nothing can be saved.
Baby begins to behave even more erratically and seems to be cracking up. The three veterans are suspicious of a Gullah family at the other end of the island; the young son seems extremely close to Baby. The woman telling the story makes a startling discovery about herself, her bed mysteriously collapses and suspicion again turns to Baby. And then the storm hits with full fury. There are a few more flashbacks that serve no purpose other than to pad things out, and finally the Coast Guard arrives, not a moment too soon. At least we are spared the tiger sharks, which are referred to but don't make an appearance.
I've enjoyed some of Anne Siddons' earlier books, and if you like her work, you might like this one, but to my mind it is several notches below weak. Too much happens for the author's convenience and not because it is needed for the plot, and it's hard to escape a feeling that there isn't much of a plot in the first place. "The Girls of August," (an unfortunate reminder of Barbara Tuchman's excellent account of the origins of World War I, "The Guns of August") just isn't in Tuchman's class -- or even Siddons'.