It has not taken me more than a month to read “Peyton Place.” In fact, I’ve read several books within the past month, but I just haven’t been moved to write about them. I find a rare free hour so I want to get this monkey off my back, break the dam, so to speak, and get some writing done about a book I enjoyed.
To fulfill the Classics Challenge 2016 category of a trashy novel, I read “Peyton Place.” (Some people private messaged me: “What constitutes trash?” I answered with something I should have put in my original post: “It’s trash if you are vaguely embarrassed to tell someone what you’re reading.”)
Interestingly, my wife and I both separately chose “Peyton Place” to read for this category. I was looking for something with little redeeming value, bad writing, salacious plot, horrid dialogue and phony characters. I gleefully sharpened my poisoned pen. Instead, I got a fairly well-written book that, despite a meandering plot, was not bad. It was almost a disappointment.
“Peyton Place” was the first novel by Grace Metalious who was 32 when it was published in 1956. It was an instant bestseller (one indication that a book is likely trash) where it remained for more than a year (another indication of trash). It became a movie and then the first night time soap opera, airing several nights a week and launching the careers of Mia Farrow, Ryan O’Neal, Lee Grant and Leslie Nielson, among others. “Peyton Place” became a catchphrase for anything that was salacious or more convoluted than it needed to be. It was a bonafide cultural touchpoint that couldn’t be ignored.
The book was daring for its time: It opens with a description of the bucolic New England town of Peyton Place, then ever so slightly picks at the veneer until it reveals classism, adultery, lust, incest, abortion, murder, repressed desires and long-buried skeletons at the heart of it all. Very few of the dozens of characters are squeaky clean, and Metalious takes great care in making sure the more respectable a character is on the outside, the more messed up he is on the inside. To quote Metalious: “To a tourist these (New England) towns look as peaceful as a postcard picture, but if you go beneath that picture it’s like turning over a rock with your foot. All kinds of strange things crawl out.”
The story centers on three women: The beautiful young widow Constance MacKenzie, the epitome of a modern woman of the 1930s, complete with her own business; her daughter Allison, a true pain in the ass who wants to become a writer; and Allison’s best friend, Selena Cross, the smart and beautiful girl who is doomed because she comes from the wrong side of the tracks. These women fall in love, try to hide their pasts and make plans for the future, all while aided or thwarted by a colorful and troubled—though fully realized and completely human—array of townies.
Critics called the book “moral filth,” and one newspaper editor opined that it “reveals a complete debasement of taste and a fascination with the filthy, rotten side of life that are the earmarks of the collapse of civilization.” Yet readers wrote to Metalious saying,”If you think ‘Peyton Place’ is bad, you should live in my town.”
I think I first heard of “Peyton Place” when I was a teenager. My mom listened to the soundtrack to “A Chorus Line” when it was popular and there is one song in which the characters reveal scenes from their adolescence. One boy sings he remembers being “locked in the bathroom with ‘Peyton Place.'” I could see how a boy in the late ’50s might have done that, both to hide from his parents that he was reading such trash and, by implication, what he was doing as he read it. Though the sex scenes are, for the most part, fairly unremarkable by today’s standards, it clearly shook parts of society to its core. Picture the time this came out: In 1956 women didn’t know they could enjoy sex, and in many states adultery, birth control use, oral sex and other acts done in the privacy of your own bedroom were often illegal. In Peyton Place, it happens every day, and not always behind closed blinds.
Metalious based much of the novel on events she had seen or experienced in her own home town where she grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. The plot has little forward momentum—it’s more of a long-term look at three different eras in one town, but Metalious’ greatest strength is in understanding the town and its people and making them three-dimensional. Some may do bad things, but Metalious mines the fears, pride, disappointments that lead to those actions so a reader understands the hurtful actions.
I really enjoyed this book, though it didn’t entirely fit my category. It wasn’t trash, which was, as I have said, a bit of a disappointment. Mostly, though, it was a treat.