Home > Book, Genre, historic, Reading Challenges, Review > Book Review: Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

Book Review: Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

cover_peytonplaceSummary:
Peyton Place appears to be a picturesque small town in New Hampshire. But over the course of the novel, the secret passions, lies, and cruelties of its various inhabitants are revealed.  From a single mother lying both about her daughter’s age and being a widow to the school janitor who drinks to dull the ache of his wife’s cheating to what exactly is buried in the sheep pen in the Cross’s yard.  Small town life is anything but simple and picturesque.

Review:
This book was first recommended to me on either LibraryThing or GoodReads for being similar to The Group (review), another book written in the mid 1900s featuring an ensemble cast.  I wound up ultimately picking it up because I read that it was quite scandalous when it first came out and it was the inspiration behind the first successful nighttime American soap opera of the same name (source).  Additionally, I grew up in Vermont but spent a lot of time in New Hampshire, since I grew up on the Vermont border with New Hampshire.  I even went to high school in New Hampshire (public school, my town in Vermont was too small for a high school so bussed us out to other ones nearby).  I was curious to see if any element of the book would successfully evoke New Hampshire to me.  I often find that books set in New Hampshire just don’t ring true with the New Hampshire I know.  What I found was a book that almost gave me chills at how well it depicted a typical New Hampshire small town, but also was nowhere near what I would in my modern mind describe as scandalous, although I can see why it was at the time.

The story explores the intersecting lives of many town folk in the 1940s and 1950s, but primarily focuses on Constance MacKenzie, her daughter Allison, and her daughter’s friend from the wrong side of the tracks, Selena Cross.  Constance is a frigid woman who has tamped down her sexuality in an attempt to raise her daughter who she conceived out of wedlock while having an affair with a married man in the right way.  She has gone so far as to lie about her daughter’s age and to lie about being a widow to help her daughter seem “acceptable.”  Allison grows up over the course of the novel, first having typical teenage angst, then moving away to NYC to become a writer.  Selena Cross suffers from a good-for-nothing stepfather, living in a shack, and living with a mother who is not all mentally there.  Through their eyes and lives we see snippets of the lives of many others in the town.

Here are the things that were considered scandalous when the book was first published: rape of a stepdaughter by a stepfather (you can probably guess who), abortion (which was illegal at the time), men locking themselves in a basement to go on a bender for weeks at a time.  Things that were probably also considered scandalous but to less of a degree: teenage sex, out of wedlock sex, middle school aged boy spying on a couple having sex, murder in self-defense.  I had to sit here and think for a bit to remember what was possibly deemed scandalous.  It mostly just seemed like a very eventful book to me, and honestly I was just a bit surprised that nothing more scandalous happened.  (Apparently, Metalious originally wrote the book with having a father rape a daughter, but the publisher made her change it because America wasn’t ready yet. Oh my how times have changed. Source).  The only part of the book that really bothered me at all in the way that perhaps people were once scandalized was the depicted of Constance’s relationship with her new boyfriend.  Basically she is frigid and he has to get her to open up and accept her sexuality in order to be her true self.  That’s a fine plot, but the way it’s done often verges on the border of “she said no but ignore it because she really means yes.”  I understand in the 1950s when this was written that it was progressive to have a woman character learning to open up and embrace her sexuality, so I shouldn’t be too harsh with modern critiques.  Certainly the character herself deems what occurred between her and her boyfriend as lovemaking.  But I definitely don’t think this portion aged well, and it soured my enjoyment of that particular chapter, and Constance’s plot as a whole.

I found the two abortion plots to be particularly poignant and important.  Even though abortion is now legal, a lot of the arguments for and against it in the book are still heard today.  I found the two abortions in the book to be an important reminder of why it’s important for abortion to be legal and also why it’s important to educate about safe sex at the same time.

What really made me enjoy the book though was its depiction of small town New Hampshire life.  It just rang as so very true to me, right own to the scandals.  I think too often people get this idealistic picture of small town life, and that is just not the reality for people who actually live there.  People in small towns are just as human as people in cities.  The real difference is that it’s hard to change your reputation in a small town.  Similarly, small towns are more able to be a law in and of themselves.  If the people agree on something, no outsiders can make them change their tune.  That can both be a blessing and a curse.  If you are interested in New Hampshire, this book certainly presents it in an unvarnished way.  From the scenery to the proximity of Vermont to the mills and the problems with the mills to the way the small towns block out those who aren’t from here.  If what the reader is looking for is a real representation of small town New Hampshire, they should certainly look no further.

One side-note: I find the story of the author’s life and how her book was received to be quite fascinating.  For instance, how it was mostly received as chick lit, in spite of the fact that if the same story had been written by a man it would have been considered serious literature.  I also find how the author found the information to inspire the story, as well as how she reacted to fame to be fascinating.  If you want to read more about the former, I recommend picking up this edition of the book, as it has a great foreword talking about the history of the book from a women’s studies perspective.  If you’re interested in the latter, I recommend reading this article from Vanity Fair about her life.

Overall, it is easy to see how this book was scandalous in its time, although it mostly holds no shock value today.  Readers interested in small town New Hampshire life with a side of multiple overlapping juicy plots will not be disappointed.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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  1. catillacranch
    July 23, 2015 at 1:08 am

    I recall the TV series. Pretty racy for the era broadcasted.

    • July 23, 2015 at 8:50 am

      Oh definitely! I didn’t mean to imply that the book wasn’t racy for its time either, just that it’s not so scandalous to me in this day and age. I’m sure the abortion plots alone would have made it racy back in the day.

      I haven’t seen the tv show, but I did check in on the plot online, and it sure sounds like it was more scandalous than the book!

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