– Born in a small town, died from success –

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

I have read a lot of lists of “best books” but so far I have not seen Peyton Place on any of them. Wait! Don’t hang up yet. There could be reasons that are not to do with the quality of the novel.

Firstly, it was controversial for its day. When it was published in 1956, it sold 60,000 copies in the first ten days of its release (Wikipedia). It was the third biggest selling novel of 1956, considered a lurid shocker, dealing with incest, abortion, murder, and small-town hypocrisy. It has now sold over 12,000,000 copies.

These associations meant it was not accepted by critics as serious literature, religious authorities were disgusted by the subject matter and their portrayal as hypocrites. Despite this it stayed on the best-seller lists for years, and sold millions of copies.

But the novel’s unsavory reputation was far from finished. The following year it was released as a movie, not bad, quite acceptable for its time, but the story was reduced to events; the descriptive passages, the inner thoughts of the characters were not included. The movie presented itself as sexy shocker.

In 1959 Grace Metalious published Return to Peyton Place. It was not nearly as popular; it was like a watered-down version of the original, with too many similarities, probably written in a hurry to take advantage of the market. It too was made into a movie, and then spun-off into another TV program before disappearing into the archives.
Worse was to follow: from 1964 to 1969 Peyton Place was turned into a TV soap opera, with little connection to the novel apart from the name.

In 1956, at thirty-two years of age, Grace Metalious was a wealthy, infamous writer, but seven years later she was dead from alcoholism. Sudden success brings with it hidden dangers. Perhaps she accepted the trashy persona the media gave her.

By 1970 any thought of the original novel being considered as ‘worthy’ by literature critics were squashed by these unfortunate associations.

For me Peyton Place was a revelation, the first adult book I read in my mid-teens. At this time I had finished with Biggles and the like, but had not yet discovered real novels. I was put off by paperback covers that gave the impression they were pornographic. An acquaintance gave me the book as he cleaned out his locker. I don’t know if he ever read it, but I did. And it opened the world of fiction to me that had been closed-off after I had out-grown pre-adolescent fiction.

Of course we often admire the music, movies, and books we experienced as teenagers. But re-reading it I find it still has much to offer. The characters are distinct and well-drawn. The descriptive passages are easy to read and emotive. The first paragraph, reminds me of the opening paragraph of The Grapes of Wrath. Wow, that is high praise, but read the start:

“Indian Summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay. In northern New England, Indian summer puts up a scarlet-tipped hand to hold winter back for a little while. She brings with her the time of the last warm spell, an uncharted season which lives until winter moves in with its backbone of ice and accoutrements of leafless trees and hard frozen ground.Those grown old, who have had the youth bled from them by the jagged-edged winds of winter, know sorrowfully that Indian summer is a sham to be met with hard-eyed cynicism. But the young wait anxiously, scanning the chill autumn skies for the sign of her coming. And sometimes the old, against all the warnings of better judgement, wait with the young and hopeful, their tired, winter eyes turned heavenwards to seek the first traces of a false softening.”

The story is about teenagers and adults who live in a small town, Peyton Place, the pretence, the hypocrisy, the class-division based on wealth and occupation that divides the town. The sexual aspects would be rated “G” by today’s standards, but at the time is was enough to have it banned in libraries and some states. It’s not the only novel to deal with these issues, but I recommend it as a “lost gem”.

The bad press has been forgotten, sex can be discussed without the wrath of God; incest and murder happen, and it was Peyton Place that helped us be more honest about these issues.

Marcus Clark

Or buy the ePub version from Kobo here

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