Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Book Review: Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
Wow! This book was everything I'd been led to believe and more! I know it was "America's most controversial novel" (according to the back copy of my 1957 edition), but I worried that in the intervening 55 years that what was considered scandalous in the 1950s would nowadays be unintentionally cute and even humorous. I was wrong! Illegitimacy, adultery, drunkenness, violence, rape, murder, incest, dismemberment, illegal abortions, and the list goes on! On top of that, the writing is first rate.
Ms. Metalious uses an interesting narrative technique - while the book is entirely in 3rd person, each chapter is focused on a single townsperson. Occasionally we circle back and see the same characters repeatedly - by this method we learn the main characters, Allison and Connie MacKenzie, and Selena Cross. It really reveals the inner workings of the town of Peyton Place, the depth of the dark secrets, and the truly good people of the town when you're able to hear the innermost thoughts of dozens of them. And never are you confused despite a very large character base. She frequently reintroduces characters, but not in a way that feels repetitive or pedantic. She writes with an evocative style and a reader can smell the sharp Indian summer dryness, or feel the cold slipperiness of the local pond. Normally a salacious read such as this doesn't have the literary quality of Peyton Place. I have spent a great deal of time in New Hampshire and New England, and this book really rings true.
Peyton Place reminds me a lot of "Mad Men". It takes place only 10 years earlier, and peels the mask off the very shiny, plastic, Stepford Wives veneer of the era, showing the depression, lust, mistakes, and honest thoughts that lie beneath. Certain things are still very true. At the end of the book, Clayton Frazier notes to an out-of-town reporter that the townspeople who scream the loudest about issues are always the ones who later ironically prove to have been most guilty of precisely what they were raving about! He was interested to see who would scream loudest after the trial, and the parallels to the protest of various New Hampshire towns (naturally, the author's hometown protesting most) after the publication of the book, are duly noted.
I dragged this out on purpose. It was easy to get into, easy to love, and the characters were easy to remember even after a couple of days gap. Don't let its length put you off! (Although I was surprised by that myself. It is physically half the width of my copy of Clan of the Cave Bear, and so I was shocked to flip to the end and see the page count was nearly the same!) A wonderful distraction, be sure to throw a copy in your beach bag this summer!
I have no idea when or where I acquired this book. It's an old (original paperback) edition that I obviously got used somewhere. Garage sale? Street vendor in New York? Used bookstore? I have no idea, but it certainly didn't come from the publisher or a new bookstore.