Meh-tuh-lee-us? Muh-towel-yus? How exactly do you say this chick's name anyway?
First some background (if you want to get straight to the review, skip this paragraph and the next one): I didn't want to read this book. I was actually looking for books set in the 50's and kept coming across this title. I'd heard of it, of course. It's one of those things that's kind of written onto the cultural wallpaper. But I also knew this book had a reputation. You know, the kind that a girl from the wrong side of the tracks with self-esteem issues who wears revealing clothing and too much make-up has. Yeah, that's right. It's known as a DIRTY book. And I don't especially care for DIRTY books. I don't go for Harlequin romances and have zero interest in getting into the whole Thirty Shades of Grey fracas (Or are there fifty? Eh. Don't care.). Anyway, I've been doing research on the fifties since my illustrious new novel takes place during that time period, and I wasn't having any luck finding any good reads that hover around that decade, so when the librarian recommended this one after an otherwise fruitless web search, I rolled my eyes, sighed, and asked if she couldn't find anything better. Then, I gave in and checked out the darn thing.
It was only after I had read through several chapters and gotten hooked that I figured out that the book is actually set in the late 1930's. Roar! Growl! Grrr! I send a bloodthirsty dinosaur to rend your dirty book to shreds, Meta-lee-us! But anyways. Like I said, ole G.M. had ensnared me by this point, so I couldn't very well put it down, now could I?
Here's what Metalious does really well: CHARACTERS! Oh Lordy Be, she is a master at creating realistic, compelling, authentic, and did I say realistic (?) characters. So that's the part that sucks you in. There's old Doc Swain, complete with white hair, white suits like KFC's colonel, and bright blue eyes. His language is unadorned, vulgar, in fact, and he is the most honest, caring fellow in the whole town. Then, there's Selena Cross, darkly gorgeous and exotic as a gypsie, she is smart and sees the the world with all its grit and grime, sans any kind of romantic blinders. She's also a shack kid whose family lives in squalor and whose stepdad is an abusive alcoholic. There's Rodney Harrington, the epitome of the spoiled, rich kid, whose demeanor is marked by laziness and apathy and whose behavior (as he grows older) is replete with horndoggery. And there's the ostensible main character of the novel, Allison MacKenzie, a restless, unsatisfied, romantic girl, who puts her absent father on a pedestal, little knowing that he had another wife and family and never actually married her mother. Of course, there are about a gazillion other characters who are equally well-developed, and together, they make up the fabric of the small town.
It seems the characters are both the highlight and downfall of the novel, at least in my (not so humble) opinion. Yes, there is a plot (several, in fact--okay, TOO MANY, in fact), but the novel focuses overly much on the lives and individual prejudices of its characters and not enough on a single, unifying plot. Maybe as a reader of contemporary fiction, I am spoiled by an industry-standard plot format--conflict, rising action, climax, denouement--you know, all that rigamarole you forgot from your high school English classes. But, heck! Even Jane Austen has a central plot in her novels, and she was writing way back in the early 19th century. So, no excuses, Muh-tuh-LEE-us! Peyton Place is so focused on the people who make up Peyton Place that it begins to drag about halfway through when the reader (i.e. me!) begins to get bored with the litany of character sketches.
So why is this a dirty book? Well, based on today's standards, it's really not doing much to push the envelope off the table. Stephen King's books can be raunchier than this. However, I can definitely see how this book was considered risque in a milieu as conservative as 1950's America. Okay, I'll just say it--it has sex scenes. Yes, it does. (I skimmed over them to keep from having to roll my eyes off the page, but hey, they're there, all right.) More than that, the book is rife with controversial subjects like teen sex, a mother-son relationship that has a whiff of incest about it, rape, and abortion. Oh, and there's some uncomfortable talk about hypocrisy in religion and class bigotry as well. So yeah, I can see how that would get the old mid-20th century birds riled up. Yes, indeed.
Slightly on a side note, I can't end this review without talking about some of the hysterical (as in humorous, not insane) language used in the novel. Especially the "sexy" parts. Here's the first line: "Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle . . . " I'm a woman, and I wouldn't describe myself as "ripe" and "hotly passionate." I can be fickle at time, but who isn't? First, the description is sexist. Second, it's hilariously cheesy. And believe me, Miz Meaty-licious ADORES the cheese aisle. During one of the love scenes between the beautiful yet prudish Constance (Allison's mom) and the swarthy, plain-talking Tom Makris (Constance's eventual husband), he says to her, "Your nipples are as hard as diamonds." (I interrupt with a burst of laughter.) Is that supposed to be romantic? Racy? Sexy? Cause to me, it just stinks of overripe cheese.
Final word--This book is more important for how it is seen in society and how it was received when it was written (The blurb on the cover pitches it as "the blockbuster novel that shocked the nation.") than for any sort of literary content. Don't get me wrong; it is a great example of characterization. Plot development? Not so much. But, yeah, it's worth the read...just not necessarily if you're looking for information about life in the early 50's.