In Anne Rivers Siddons' Sweetwater Creek, we find the coming-of-age story of young Emily Parmenter, a 12-year-old growing up in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Emily is a stranger in her own house, Sweetwater Plantation, where her father and two older brothers hardly know what to do with this girl on the cusp on womanhood.
Emily, whose mother left when she was a baby, just wants someone to love who loves her back. She finds solace of sorts with her impeccably trained Boykin spaniel Elvis. The Parmenters breed and train the spaniels and Emily is actually a bit of a savant when it comes to the family trade.
Nevertheless, her place in the family is an ill-fitting one, and terribly sad as we watch father Walter miss chance after chance to forge a true connection with his only daughter.
The catalyst for change is Lulu Foxworth, the mysteriously troubled college-aged daughter of a prominent Charleston family. When her family visits Sweetwater to see its spaniels, the connection Lulu has with the dogs is immediately apparent. Her parents asks if Lulu can spend the summer at Sweetwater and to Emiy's resentment, Walter immediately assents, eager to find an "in" with high society.
But what came, on the new wings of summer, was Lulu Foxworth, as glistening and beautiful and vulnerable as a beached Portuguese man-o-war, and just as dangerous. And for everyone at Sweetwater everything changed, and nothing ever went back to the way it was before.The maelstrom Lulu brings with her will affect Emily the most of all.
Siddons crafts a riveting story about the idyll of childhood and the price we pay as we step toward adulthood and move beyond the boundaries of home. Her characters are well-rounded and believable. Emily comes across as a sensible girl who yearns for a kindred spirit, a vulnerability that Lulu latches onto. Even Lulu, conceivably the antagonist of the story, courts our sympathies as we learn of her sordid past. In many ways, she's a child herself.
Their relationship plays out in a way that has you hoping it's for real for Emily's sake. But woven into their developing friendship is an air of unease and even menace. This can only end badly, we think, but we read on because we want to be wrong. Siddons keeps us in her grip to the very end.