Peyton Place – Grace Metalious

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?

41 Comments

Filed under Books of 2010, Grace Metalious, Review, Virago Books

41 responses to “Peyton Place – Grace Metalious

  1. I guess you were only about seven years old when it was released, but did you know that “Peyton Place” is one of the milestones of US/global history that gets a mention in Billy Joel’s 1989 hit song “We Didn’t Start the Fire”? I do not know whether he was referring primarily to the book or the TV series. I think that might have been where I first heard of it. Whilst you have been a brilliant advocate for the book I doubt whether it is up my street.

  2. I’ve just written on another blog that I’m annoyed with myself for not having managed to read a particular book on my TBR yet and the same can be said for this one, which has been there since last year. I really need to carve out some time to be immersed in the trashy, salacious, gossipy nature of it.

    I would say that it is already a modern classic – a Virago one!

    I think you would enjoy Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann a LOT; to my ear they sound quite similar and both created quite a stir. I loved the addictive nature of VoD and was completely enthralled by the lives of three friends.

    • Valley of the Dolls is one that people have mentioned to me before and I have never really been sure it would be me. Your recommendation means will have to try and get it from the library.

      I think we always have certain books we mean to read for ages and ages. I have been saying that for years about Tess of the D’Urbervilles!

  3. Verity

    Wonderful book – I agree with Claire that a perfect partner for this one would be Valley of the dolls. Envious that you have the sequel – I’m keen to read that.

  4. I loved Peyton Place when I read it a few years ago! What a perfect book for a ‘reading retreat’. As a kid in the 60’s, I was put to bed so my mother could watch the TV show (considered way too inappropriate for kids). I wondered what all the fuss was about.

    Then, as a teen in the 70’s, I read Valley of the Dolls… totally trashy and enthralling. The trash is all I really remember now, but I think PP is probably a much better piece of writing.

    • It was a great book for a reading retreat though we didnt read as much of it as we would all have liked. Actually we read one morning and didnt want to stop but thought that was a bit anti-social.

      Thats another vote for VOTD.

  5. Deb

    Ah, Simon, it brings home to me how young you are (or, conversely, how old I am) when you say you’d never heard of PEYTON PLACE before you purchased it. In addition to being a blockbuster bestseller in the late 1950s, it was also a blockbuster movie (a lot of the storyline was toned down for the movie–especially the incest/abuse angle) and later a TV show (with a very young Mia Farrow as Allison MacKenzie and an equally-young Ryan O’Neal).

    As time went on “Peyton Place” became a by-word for small-town hypocrisy and small-mindedness. Someone else may remember the line in Jeannie C. Reilly’s 1960’s hit “Harper Valley PTA”: “Well this is just a little Peyton Place/And you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites.”

    Grace Metalious lived a rather sad (and short) life. She was very much a square peg in a round hole (and a very heavy drinker who married a number of times–including twice to her first husband). There’s at least one very good biography of her–I don’t have it to hand right now, but I read it a few years ago and it was excellent about Grace’s life and how she came to write PEYTON PLACE.

    • Emily Toth

      I happened upon this post with great pleasure–because I’m the author of the “very good biography” (also the only biography) of Grace Metalious.

      It’s INSIDE PEYTON PLACE: THE LIFE OF GRACE METALIOUS, by Emily Toth. Doubleday originally published my biography in 1981, and the University Press of Mississippi republished it in 2000.

      It’s also been bought by Sandra Bullock for a possible feature film. I’m very pleased to see how much this blogger appreciates and understands PEYTON PLACE.

      Emily Toth

      • Hi Emily, thank you for popping by. Looks like thats a biography to add to my list when I am off this pesky book buying ban!

        I am amazed with the success of Desperate Housewives and Mad Men they havent decide to remake this as a show.

    • Age ain’t nothing but a number Debs! I have popped the film on my LoveFilm wishlist so will be looking forward to its arrival in the none too distant future.

      I am very keen to learn more about Grace and am now hankering after a copy of her novel Tight White Collar (I am so hoping thats what its called and that I havent made a school boy error).

  6. Oh, you just renewed my great desire to read Peyton Place and Empire Falls!

  7. Darla LaRoche

    There is a restaurant across the river in Orford, New Hampshire (not the same town the book is based on (Gilmanton, NH but close) that is named Peyton Place. The food is fabulous. I’ll take a picture of the restaurant sign the next time I drive by and post it for you.

  8. I started Peyton Place in high school and just couldn’t finish it. I know it’s considered by many to be a “trashy” book and I was able to enjoy some V.C. Andrews at that age (I wouldn’t go near her now), but still, I found Peyton Place just so ridiculously over-the-top.

    I’m in my mid-20s. I had read about Peyton Place in a work of social history about the 1950s. When I checked it out, the 50-ish librarian told me it was a great book. Much as I disagree, I think it still as historical value. I can see reading it for a course on mid-century pop culture or something like that.

    • It is dramatic but reading it, maybe its just what we read in the papers etc now, I didnt get the melodrama, I could imagine all of it being tangable which made it work for me.

      I could see it becoming a big classic one day, its a cult classic now so time will tell.

  9. I’ve seen the film and don’t remember a whole lot about it. I think it must have been a number of years ago. This sounds like a good summer read!

  10. Annabel (gaskella)

    This has been on my shelf for a while, but I’m itching to read it now – it’ll go on holiday with me for sure. If I remember, it has a fabulous first line, but someone will have to remind me of it.

    • It does indeed have a fabulous first few lines, all about Indian summer, I am sadly rather a walk away from my shelves but its all about how indian summer is like a ripe woman, literary fabulousness lol.

  11. I really want to read this now! I have seen it so many times in charity shops – I even bought a copy for my friend because I knew she’d love it! I must borrow her copy actually – and report back!

    • I saw it lots in charity shops last year and bought a few copies for people that I know and have as yet not heard a negative word on it from any of them. I think this would be up your street.

  12. Dot

    This sounds fantastic, I may have to get this to take on holiday! Great review!

    • Thanks Dot, I hope people who now rush out and get it enjoy it as much as I did. I think you’ll like it after your rave review of Forever Amber which I really want to read now.

  13. LizF

    I remember the TV series vaguely when it was on in the 1960’s. It fascinated me more because I wasn’t supposed to watch it than because i had the vaguest idea of what was going on (I can’t remember how old I was but certainly under ten).
    The book however looks fascinating and just the right reading for a hot summer day (should we ever get one when I’m not either at work or with too much to do to have chance to read!)

    • Hahaha I had the same thing with a show called ‘This Life’ here in the UK in the 90’s. I knew it was naughty and I shouldnt be watching it but didnt really understand why.

      It is indeed a perfect summer read!

  14. novelinsights

    Ooh, great review Simon! I couldn’t fault this either – had everything that I like in a book. If I ever become a writer I need a name as fabulous as ‘Metalious’

  15. I wouldn’t have picked up this book on my own, probably, but I am wanting it bad now! Great review!

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  17. I took this book to hospital with me for reading post op a couple of years ago thinking it was long enough to do me and light enough not to be overly taxing. Unfortunatly I finished most of it before I got the anesthetic. It’s a great read and you should definatley try Valley of the Dolls next

    • Hahahaha brilliant tale, I love that. Shows what a good book it is, bet it got rid of all your pre-op nerves too! I think Valley of the Dolls is clearly a book I am simply going to have to read.

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