Everyone’s waitin’ for the fires to start

Peyton PlacePeyton Place
by Grace Metalious

I picked this off my Classics Club list (which I’m woefully behind on). The premise – revealing what’s behind the twitching lace curtains of small-town America in the 1930s and 1940s – definitely intrigued me, but I didn’t realise quite how much would be revealed.

This is the book equivalent of an ensemble drama – there isn’t really one lead character. Metalious beautifully establishes the setting, describing autumnal New England in its colourful glory before beginning to introduce the town’s inhabitants. There are the rich elite of Elm Street, the gossiping poker-playing old men, the class-boundary-defiant teenagers, the middle-class mothers fearful that their secrets will be discovered.

“Clayton Frazier set his coffee cup down with a little click, and then he looked hard at the stranger for a moment.
‘Go fast, mister,’ he said. ‘Get over that line of hills as fast as you can go. Mebbe they got rain up to Canada.’
The stranger laughed… ‘What does rain in Canada have to do with my getting there quickly?’
‘We ain’t got rain here,’ said Clayton Frazier, turning to look out the window. ‘Ain’t had none since June.’
‘Oh,’ said the stranger, feeling rather disappointed. ‘Is that what everyone is waiting for? Rain?’
Clayton Frazier did not look at him again. ‘Fire,’ he said. ‘Everyone’s waitin’ for the fires to start, mister. If you’re smart you’ll go fast. You’ll get past the hills before the fires start.’ ”

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding the story of Allison MacKenzie and Selena Cross the heart of the book. Their friendship is typical of teenage girls: fierce and devoted despite having little in common, family- or personality-wise. Allison has been raised by her mother Constance following her father’s death when she was just a baby. They have a comfortable, respectable life, albeit one based on a lie. Selena and her little brother Joey live with their mother and stepfather Lucas in a shanty hut, trying to keep out of the way of Lucas’s drunken rages. Selena’s story is a dark, upsetting one and it’s one that the whole town follows, from their various perspectives.

“There is such a thing as love not meeting a test, but that does not mean that it was not a kind of love to begin with. Love is not static. It changes and fluctuates, sometimes growing stronger, sometimes weaker and sometimes disappearing altogether. But still, I think it is difficult not to be grateful for the love one gets.”

The characters are not especially complex. For the most part they are their actions. I guess to pack in this many characters and this many storylines, there wasn’t really room for psychological depth. Not that it’s all surface; there is subtlety to the storytelling. I just didn’t feel that I had got to know any of the characters by the end. But Metalious beautifully captures the feeling of the small town – both unwelcoming and yet cosy at the same time. It’s a really enjoyable read.

Published 1956 by Julian Messner.

Source: Waterstones