In her previous novel, COLONY (1992), Anne Rivers Siddons sent an unsuspecting Southern bride into the annual summer gathering of proper Bostonians in Maine. In HILL TOWNS, two Southerners from a small academic community in Tennessee venture into an even more alien environment, a society of worldly expatriates in Italy.
Since a childhood trauma, Catherine Compton has clung to her mountaintop refuge, living tranquilly with the professor whom she met and married there, the Tidewater aristocrat Joe Gaillard. However, when two friends invite the Gaillards to attend their wedding in Rome, Catherine cannot deny her husband the adventure of a lifetime. Relying on her completed therapy and a supply of tranquilizers, she ventures forth.
In fact, the worst danger Catherine will face is not her agoraphobia but the effects of Italy itself. The sensual atmosphere diminishes Joe in Catherine’s eyes, while magnifying the attractions of Sam Forrest, a famous artist, who is painting her portrait while his wife keeps Joe occupied. When the Forrests accompany the Gaillards and the newlyweds on their tour of Italy, Catherine and Joe find themselves growing apart. Not until they have reached the welcoming hills of Tuscany and discovered the disillusioning truth about the Forrests do the Gaillards find the perspective they need, if they are to stay together.
A reader who has been swept along by Siddons’ plot, which twists and turns as unpredictably as a Venetian alley, will feel that HILL TOWNS deserves a second perusal, when one could concentrate on the rich nuances of the work. This is one of Siddons’ most impressive achievements.