The Hot Ones : OUTER BANKS, By Anne Rivers Siddons (HarperCollins: $19.95; 401 pp.)

See's latest novel, "Making History," will be published in September

Even though "Outer Banks" is frankly summer reading--a tale of four women, who, as an advertising tag hopefully states, are brought together by friendship and torn apart by love--it's actually far more thoughtful, a treatise something like E.M. Forster's "Howard's End." The question asked here is: Who will inherit America? (Not the White House, but the beach house!) Who will find the sweet husband, travel the world, enjoy self-respect, and peace of mind? "Outer Banks" follows a fascinating premise, or one that always will be fascinating to Americans: How far can you climb in our society? Are you really moving when you climb, or just walking up on a down escalator? If you do succeed in actually climbing, will you have fun when you get there?

The novel's heroine, Kate Lee, is born in the South, in a nasty swamp of genteel poverty. Her name seems right, although she's absolutely not a "Lee of Virginia," and her dad, who looks and acts like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who coaches her in the art of social climbing, is a pathetic fraud. (This is back in the '50s, remember, when society's signals weren't quite so mixed, and fairly easy to read.)

Kate, as a teen-ager, goes north to Cape Cod to work in a fashionable resort. She throws away her southern crinolines and invests in oxford cloth shirts and Weejuns. She wears her hair straight and hardly ever smiles, and passes herself off as one of the "right" people. How difficult, how reflexive, how mindless, how American this effort to appear just a little better, a little richer, a little more well bred: "I threw away my Revlon and Max Factor and bought Chapstick and sat endless hours in the sun, with lemon juice scalding the silver ash out of my hair. By the end of the summer it was the streaked tow of every other young woman of a certain station on the Eastern Seaboard."

But Kate doesn't belong to that certain station. She's a rampant fake. Flash forward to Kate's sophomore year in college. She's been forced to transfer to a state university because of her father's suicide and her own intransigent poverty. But at Randolph State, as a Tri Omega, she meets the friends who will color her life forever. She meets Cecie, who is her roommate, and smart, and also poor as a church mouse. And Ginger Fowler, who is squat and friendly and unpretentious and very, very rich.

Ginger's family has a beach house on the Outer Banks, and when she asks her friends up for the holidays, they glimpse a different way of living, the "beach" the way it is down South--a way of integrating the idea of the good life into realities that they already know. (But Ginger is engagingly modest about her own expectations in life. She knows she is a pawn in her father's nouveau-riche game; she knows she'll end up marrying whoever he thinks is best for her.)

Finally, the fourth in their sorority suite is a repellent, adenoidal, disgusting creature named Fig. Fig must be pledged by Tri Omega because every damn last mother, grandmother, cousin and aunt before her was a Tri Omega. The other girls detest her for a variety of reasons: She's ugly as a wart hog, she snores like a fog horn and she has a personality like pond slime.

Ladies, does any of this sound familiar? Do any of us remember foursomes from our high schools, our colleges--uneasy alliances where one girl is very rich, and a couple of others are poor-but-learning, and the fourth, a wild card, may be a crazy person, a force for evil (or maybe just misunderstood)? All this ground is gone over in a leisurely pace, in that oasis of time that makes up undergraduate life. Then, sometime in Kate's senior year, a darling guy happens by: Paul Sibley, half-Seminole, home from the war (this is the '50s, remember). Paul already has been married to a French wife, and he's studying architecture. He's desperately poor, madly talented, knows how to make coq au vin , and he's as phony as a three-dollar bill.

Kate falls for Paul. She's been studying design, and longs to go to New York as his lowly assistant. Cecie sizes Paul up and gags. Fig checks out the whole configuration and writes it down in her journal. Decent, rich Ginger invites all of them over to her beach house. Paul notices that Kate isn't as rich as he first thought . . .

And flash forward again, about 30 years. Kate is married to Alan Abrams, lean, Jewish, loyal and cute. She lives up North now in her own beautiful beach house. She and Alan run their own designing firm. Ginger is the one who ended up with madly talented Paul Sibley, because she had the money. Cecie hasn't been heard from in decades; why? As for Fig, she's turned into a cross between Judith Krantz and the Devil--an artificially slim and beautiful woman still irrevocably marked by all the hatred she had had to endure during her undergraduate days.

Getting ahead! It's such a weird pastime, even for men, and especially for women. Leo Braudy has remarked in his book on fame that most fame comes down to "showing off for God," bragging to an invisible divinity. For women, divinity may translate into those three girls we went to college or high school with. How are my job, my face, my figure, my happiness, my children, my marriage, my beach house, my calm, my wardrobe, my car, my LIFE, compared to Joan's, Nancy's, Jackie's? (Or in this case, Cecie's, Ginger's, Fig's?)

The real wild card here is life, which hurls cancer, sudden death, clinical depression, raving in-laws, more poverty, at all of us, with sly, impervious cunning. Is what we wanted really what we want? And did we get it? Did we inherit America, or were we sold junk bonds at an impressionable age?

That's what "Outer Banks" is all about, and it deserves the wide readership it undoubtedly will receive.

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