For most readers of Nora, Nora, the title character will steal the show. A whiff of scandal accompanies Nora's arrival in Lytton, a sleepy, rural Georgia town. She smokes, cusses, and wears a T-shirt that says, "Jesus is coming. Look busy."It's 1961 and Nora wants revolution. She wants it now. She tries to railroad Lytton with change, teaching Tropic of Cancer in a public high school barely ready for To Kill a Mockingbird. Nora's seeming cynicism masks a more fundamental naivete. She believes that if she shows people the new horizons they hunger for, they will guard her secrets. That she is betrayed from almost every side is the novel's central heartbreak.
Siddons has written a string of bestsellers, including Low Country and Outer Banks, whose titles reflect their Southern settings. The author's finest achievement in her new book may be with the character Peyton, a 12-year-old girl hovering unwillingly on the brink of adulthood in an era when gender dictated more rigid roles than it does now. Siddons accurately captures the impulse that leads even the best-hearted adults to make children over in their own image.
One of the novel's funniest and most painful episodes is Peyton's trip to the beauty parlor, where tomboy Peyton is made over into a southern belle, complete with heavy makeup, under her aunt's iron hand. The next day, Peyton gets transformed, yet again, into the image of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's by her nightclub hopping, feminist cousin Nora.
Nora, Nora effectively explores the extent to which people fail to change. The novel's three principle characters are trapped not only in the mores of a small southern town, which the civil rights movement threatens to leave behind, but also in their own individual comfort zones. Even Peyton's likable father, Frazier, a lawyer and advocate of integration, presses only so hard for badly needed reforms to Lytton's school and class systems.
Change and transformation don't come as easily to people in real life as they do in the movies, and Siddons shows us that reality.
Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.