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Literature / Peyton Place

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The original Town with a Dark Secret.

It is difficult to overstate the sensation which Peyton Place, the 1956 debut novel from New Hampshire housewife Grace Metalious, caused when it was first published, or the full degree to which it scandalized America, small towns, the people that lived in them, and pretty much the whole genre of paperback fiction, which at the time was mostly populated with happy stories about happy people, good times, and noodle salad. That's The '50s for you.

But Peyton Place changed all this. Later described as "The Novel That Shocked the Nation" – which it did, true enough – it concerns itself mainly with the various skeletons that outwardly-respectable people have in their closets and how they try to keep them there. Still, it was hugely successful in its day, spawning a sequel, a feature film and later a television series.

In terms of plot, the novel covers the overlapping lives of just about everyone in the sleepy New England town of Peyton Place over a number of years in the late 1930s and early 1940s. There's Allison MacKenzie, kinda-sorta the main character, who waltzes through her life mostly dreamily, disdaining Peyton Place and its people and all the while longing for a better life elsewhere, anywhere; Allison's mom Constance, who went off to New York City in her youth and got knocked up by a Big City Businessman and has carried the shame with her the rest of her life; new high school principal Tomas Mak– er, Rossi, in whom Connie sees all the flaws and beauty of the father of her child; Seth Buswell and Matt Swain, local notables (the publisher of the newspaper and chief doctor at the hospital, respectively) who have got their fingers firmly pressed on the pulse of the town; wealthy Leslie Harrington, whose textile mill is the town's main employer, and his son Rodney – and Rodney's girlfriend Betty; and, last but not least, there's Selena Cross, and her little brother Joey, and their stepdad Lucas...

The novel was adapted into a 1957 film starring Lana Turner, and subsequently a Prime Time Soap running on ABC television from 1964–69 and starring Dorothy Malone and Mia Farrow. Metalious also followed up with the 1959 novel Return to Peyton Place, which was a critical and commercial flop; this sequel was itself adapted as an In Name Only film in 1961.

The book contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Artistic License – Medicine: The author clearly has no idea how early-stage abortions work. She seems to think it's like a C-section. When a teenage girl raped by her stepfather goes to the doctor for a secret abortion, he cuts open her abdomen and removes her appendix as well as the fetus, so he can truthfully say he performed an appendectomy on her.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Allison is very well-spoken and (well, sorta) polite for a 14-year-old, but tends towards abrupt 180s if someone bores her or pisses her off. Cases in point: Nellie Cross (repeatedly), and Norman Page.
  • During the War: The second part of the novel takes place during World War II, with some "home front" issues being touched on.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Even the newspaper publisher and town doctor, each wealthy enough to not have a care in the world, are miserable.
  • Gossipy Hens: Inverted: it's the men of the town, Seth Buswell and Matt Swain, who keep themselves in the know of Peyton Place.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: Grace Metalious based Peyton Place on several New Hampshire towns. Residents of the one in which she resided, Gilmanton, were particularly displeased by the novel's depiction and made Metalious and her family into social pariahs: her husband was fired from his job as a local school principal (and subsequently divorced her), their children were ostracized, they received hate mail and death threats, etc.
  • Noodle Incident: The true story of Samuel Peyton is narrated second-hand, but you never find out the apparently really awful part(s).
  • Popcultural Osmosis: In its day, the book was about as scandalous as scandalous can get. To be seen reading it was a pretty sure indictment of your moral hygiene or lack thereof. (For a frame of reference, the equally scandalous The Catcher in the Rye had only debuted five years before.) Nowadays its subject matter and the things it talks about are downright commonplace, but in the late fifties in Eagle Land? Whew boy...
  • Put on a Bus: For a book with numerous characters, any of whom drop in and out of the narrative at will, this is bound to happen. Of note, Ted Carter, built up for mostly half the book as Mr Selena Cross, promptly goes up the stairs when Selena kills Lucas.
  • Small Reference Pools: Chances are, if you know someone who knows Peyton Place, they're thinking of the TV show.
  • Small Town Boredom: A symptom of living in Peyton Place. Allison, naturally, plots her escape.