Peyton Place - Grace MetaliousPublished in 1956, Peyton Place launched into the bestselling list immediately, even though this was the first novel for writer Grace Metalious. Only a few books in history have sold more than 10 million copies, and Peyton Place reached that mark. If you compare it with 2 other books that sold huge before 1956 - God's Little Acre and Gone with the Wind - you can see the similarities. Epic tale, many generations, and lots of sex. Apparently we readers want to read about the sordid details of peoples lives.
In this case, the story involved incest, rape, murder, bastard children, abortion and much more - all in a tiny New Hampshire town with a population of 3,675. There are the rich folk who live on the best street in town. There are the poor folk who live in one-room shacks without plumbing or privacy. Every character you meet has a twisted history - drinking, gambling, womanizing, envy, sloth, greed.
You have to suspend your disbelief to think that a town of this size really has every single person there involved in some sort of bizarre activity. I live in a small town - I know that certainly there are secrets people have, and jealousies that trace back generations. Still, between people losing limbs, people falsely claiming war honors, religious leaders changing sides and much more, there's just a bit too much going on in a single town. Still, it's like reading murder mystery stories set in a small town like "Paradise, Massachusetts" where suddenly there's a murder a year when a new police chief moves in. You have to accept the situation to go with the story.
I've been in this area of New Hampshire - along the Connecticut River, looking across to Vermont, 3 hours south of the Canadian border. It definitely is a very peaceful, rolling hills, quiet area. I can hear the speech she lays out, imagine the characters quite easily. I love the descriptions of the trees, the snows, the spring rains. They are comforting and familiar. And even though the characters go through some exceptionally bizarre times, you do get the sense that life goes on and that after all, it's really not so bad.
As far as modern reviewers saying "This was shocking back in 1956, to cover these topics!" I need to point out that people said that EVERY time a book like this comes out. God's Little Acre came out in 1933. Talk about sex, incest and rape! Gone with the Wind, in 1936, wasn't a tame book. Then Valley of the Dolls came out in 1966 and once again "shocked readers". People just like to be shocked, and to read about sex, incest and other taboo topics. Certainly people did have sex in the 50s, and talk about it. Millions of people bought this book, and talked about it. Somehow we think that all previous generations are prudish :)
Still, if you get 10 million + readers to read a book because it has shocking taboo incest in it, maybe you can hold up a mirror along the way and get some small amount of self-examination in there while they race along glued to the peer-in-the-window details. Maybe a few people stopped to think about how they judge others, or appreciate their own lives a bit better. I just re-read Peyton Place over the past 4 hrs and look at that as time well spent. It really does make me think fondly of the quiet, rolling hills of New Hampshire, currently in the middle of lovely foliage season, and also think that, despite any troubles I might have in my life, I have it pretty good, all things considered. Not bad results from a "soap opera" read.
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