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Looking for Peyton Place
by Barbara Delinsky
(Scribner, $25.95, PG) ISBN 0-7432-4644-6
***
It’s hard to believe in this era of reality television and tell-all memoirs, but when Peyton Place was released almost 50 years ago it was considered scandalous and shocking.  One of the first bestselling novels that blew the lid off the secrets in small-town America, it was the book that everyone read but hid from their mothers.  Sadly, the author of this influential novel, Grace Metalious, was unable to enjoy the book’s notoriety, dying destitute and alone before her 40th birthday.  Barbara Delinsky pays homage to both the novel and the author in her latest release, Looking for Peyton Place, which features mystery, romance, corruption, gossip and the ghost of Ms. Metalious herself.  While it is undeniably clever and well-written, I was so busy being overwhelmed by the technique that I never made an emotional connection to the heroine. 

Annie Barnes left her hometown of Middle River, New Hampshire for Georgetown University in Washington D.C., and never looked back.  She didn’t quite fit in at school or at home, and her final humiliation came at the hands of Aidan Meade, whose family owned the town’s paper mill and controlled most of Middle River as well.  Now a successful novelist, she has returned to New Hampshire to explore the mysterious factors surrounding her mother’s recent death and her sister Phoebe’s subsequent physical and mental deterioration.   

The homecoming after 15 years is anything but a return of the prodigal.  Annie may be well-off and well-known in literary circles, but in Middle River she’s still just a troublemaker.  Few people support her quest to determine if lead poisoning or other environmental toxins are sickening the residents.  Even Annie’s oldest sister Sabina, who thinks Phoebe’s ailments are related to depression over their mother’s death, warns Annie that she’s putting the town’s economic future in jeopardy with her snooping.  But help comes from several unexpected sources, including an anonymous informant named True Blue whose e-mails provide evidence that support Annie’s growing suspicions that something is fishy in Middle River.  And none other the spirit of Grace Metalious, who many believe used Middle River as the basis for her shocking novel, appears inside Annie’s head to provide guidance.   

It takes a while to get into Looking for Peyton Place and the plot set-up requires a healthy suspension of disbelief.  The small town setting feels dated and Gothic – where’s the Super Wal-Mart? – and the residents’ paranoia about their secrets is also difficult to swallow at a time when people are vying with each other to get on Jerry Springer so they can brag about their sins.  And in our global economy, could one family still control a factory and therefore the whole town?   

Annie’s quirky first person narrative also kept me at a distance.  I wouldn’t quite call it chatty in a Chick Lit manner, but she includes occasional distracting asides spoken directly to the reader and “Universal Truths” that are more clichéd than enlightening.  It’s one of the reasons I never quite warmed up to her or rooted for her fully to find vindication and love.  I will give Delinsky credit, however, for giving Annie a distinct voice.  In fact, one of Delinsky’s strengths is that her narratives vary from book to book; some utilize first person, others use third, and the heroine of one novel sounds nothing like the next.   

The novel picks up steam as it progresses and the reader becomes accustomed to the voice and setting.  There’s a lot of good investigative work, an unexpected star-crossed romance, and numerous small-town secrets including an unusual, amusing courtship rite.  The rousing climax as good triumphs over evil is reminiscent of a Frank Capra-directed movie starring Jimmy Stewart, in keeping with the book’s old-fashioned tone.  

Delinsky tries to convince the reader that Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place was ahead of its time, laying the groundwork for women’s liberation by honestly examining our needs and wants.  The author’s premature death, she believes, was a symptom of a society not yet ready to accept a free-thinking woman.  I’m not sure the book was much more than a juicy page-turner and an early publishing phenomenon, but if Delinsky persuades a few readers to hit the library or bookstore and ultimately form their own opinions, she deserves to be commended.   

--Susan Scribner


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