I always think that it’s interesting to know where people of heard of the books they read and why they decided they should read them when they did. The latter of course can be harder to explain as sometimes the timing just seemed right. I initially had my interest piqued when I saw it mentioned on one of Dovegreyreader’s Endsleigh Salon posts and becoming smitten with the new Virago cover. When I then found out it was a tale of a town, its people and what goes on behind closed doors how could I not pick it up when I saw that very edition for £3 on Charing Cross Road (and again when I found a lovely battered copy of it and the sequel for 50p each the same week) late last year? It was also the book myself, Novel Insights and our friend Michelle chose to read for our reading retreat.
I cannot pretend that I didn’t originally want to read this book in part because it sounded like a wonderfully shocking and slightly trashy romp of a tale. Yet to label the book trashy is unfair on ‘Peyton Place’ because Grace Metalious (possibly the best name for an author ever?) writes wonderfully and as a piece of fiction it’s really rather complex, as there are so many characters and undercurrents, and also has a lot to say. Fear not though never once does the author baffle you or over complicate things.
We follow and Indian Summer and join ‘Peyton Place’ and its folk in the autumn of 1937 and slowly but surely we are taken past its beautiful façade and through the closed, but never locked, front doors and firmly into the villagers lives – which of course means into all their secrets too. Upon its release in 1956, and indeed to a degree now, thinking that murder, incest, love that daren’t speak its name, rape, spying, abortion, child abuse and much more could go on behind the curtains (though again these never seem to be closed in Peyton Place, it would suggest something was amiss heaven forbid) in the house next to you was very shocking and the book deemed immoral.
All of this and more does indeed go on in Peyton Place and before you know it you a sucked into the town and all its gossip and goings on as if you live there. No easy job for any author yet Grace Metalious does it perfectly and with ease…
“By five o’clock of this same afternoon, the word had fallen on the ears of people who remembered Betty’s bruised face of the day before. It fell on the ears of Pauline Bryant, who was the sister of Esther Bryant who was the secretary to Leslie Harrington. Pauline, who worked as a clerk in Mudgett’s Hardware Store telephoned to Esther, and Esther, proud of being the only one who was really in the know, as she put it, gladly related the true story about Betty Anderson. That evening, the true story about Betty Anderson was served, along with the meat and potatoes, at every supper table in Peyton Place. Allison MacKenzie heard it from her mother, who used it as a sort of hammer with which to drive home her reasons for chastity in young girls.”
It also takes a rather great author to make a huge cast of characters not only real for the reader but human, be they good or bad, to the point that you really do care what happens to them. From the delights of true love to some more uncomfortable darker reading Metalious has you right there with them the whole way through, and what a cast of characters it is.
There are so many wonderful characters that I could write on and on about them, so I shall hone them down to a few favourites the good, the bad and the crazy. Norman Page and his overbearing slightly creepy mother, the bitter curtain twitching Page sisters Caroline and Charlotte, the crazy cat loving spinster Miss Hester Goodale, the almost too good to be true Dr Matthew Swaine and the rapacious and rogue Michael Kyros are just a few.
However, Selena Cross was my favourite, a determined young girl from the shacks who wants for a better life and who you root for the whole way through as she has some horrific storylines. Metalious seemed to want to make Allison MacKenzie the main focus of the book and I do wonder if that is because she is the character most like Metalious, a young girl in a small town with big ideas and dreams of being a writer but it was Selena who shone for me.
You may just have guessed by now that I thought this book was utterly brilliant. I got the page-turning escapism that I was looking for but I also got so much more, the humour, the sadness, the shocks. I found a book that was so well written and so believable (yet incredibly and quite delightfully melodramatic) it made me care about a community and feel a part of it. I also found some characters that I will never forget and a book I will have to go back to time and time again. In fact I am going to go as far as to say I may have found a new favourite book full stop. This should be a future classic, and you should all most definitely read it. 10/10
So who out there has read Peyton Place too and what did you think? Has anyone seen the movie or the TV series? Who like me had never heard of it before? What other books, apart from the sequel to this, can you think of that manage to enthral you in a whole community and the lives of those in it? (I can only think of ‘Empire Falls’ by Richard Russo.) What other books which where scandalous at the time of printing have your read and thought should actually become great classics?