Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
This is the book that set the benchmark for every soap opera and drama of small town America that followed, and it’s almost shocking to find that it’s so well written. I’m not going to dwell on the plot – I’ll leave you to discover that if you decide to read it – it has big themes and it’s got a little of everything; and although people will always dwell on the bad things that are going on behind the town’s closed doors, there is good too.
The three main characters are all women and they’re all very believable and well-drawn. Constance MacKenzie returned to Peyton Place from New York where she had an illegitimate daughter Allison and now she poses as a widow and runs a dress shop. Allison who is somewhat of a shy and swotty type wants to be a writer. Her best friend is Selena Cross, who is a ‘shack-dweller’ from the poor side of town where she lives with her mad mother, nasty step-father, and younger brother. When the story starts Allison and Selena are just teenagers, and it follows them over a period of several years as they blossom into young women – most of the book centres around one or more of the three.
The two other stand-out characters are Doctor Swain who is a good-hearted man, and Tomas Makris – the exotic new school headmaster, who falls for Constance. A whole cast of others support them as we hear all the stories about the townsfolk – from the town drunks who lock themselves in a cellar full of booze for winter, to the teenager who is maimed when a fairground ride goes wrong, and then there are the Harringtons – the richest family in town. Our book group liked the episodic feel of the stories – as if she’d had TV rights in mind when she wrote it – the town drunks, and with the fairground maiming it would end with a da-da-DAH! as you don’t find out what happened to the girl until later.
What was almost as interesting as the book itself was reading some background about Metalious, (that’s her on the right, pic from Wikipedia). My 2002 edition had an essay by an American academic which was fascinating. Metalious was the product of a broken home and grew up in poverty but she always wanted to write. She married and had kids, then aged thirty started to write the book that would make her world-famous in 1956, followed by three other novels. She died aged 39 of cirrhosis of the liver.
The book is clearly autobiographical – Metalious is Allison. Other characters were also rather real – she got into trouble over the character of Tomas Makris, and Selena was based on a real young woman too. As for the town of Peyton Place itself, it appears to be an amalgamation of several towns in the vicinity of Manchester and Gilmanton in New Hampshire where they lived. We holidayed in New Hampshire some years ago, stopping off in these very towns – I was very taken by one of them, Laconia, finding its lakeside location very pretty, and as she would say very ‘Ye Olde New Hampshire’. I thought that somewhere like that, just over an hour outside Boston would be a lovely place to live … However I’m know that every small town or community has its secrets and busybodies – twas ever thus. I suppose the fact that it was set in New England, where the strictly Puritan descendants of the Mayflower settled, makes the numbers of skeletons in closets more shocking.
This is a fantastic book – I’m very glad to have read this quintessential novel of 1950s America – Do read it! (10/10)
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Peyton Place by Grace Metalious