Sometimes, my friends, I read books so you don’t have to. Peyton Place was a controversial fixture of mid-20th century culture so when it crossed my path recently, I wanted to investigate. I don’t remember the publication of the book but the soap opera was huuuuge. In my small town, and presumably many others, any faintly scandalous nugget of gossip prompted someone to exclaim, “It’s just like ‘Peyton Place!’” There were titanic battles in my house about whether or not we children were allowed to watch it, with the totally predictable outcome that the youngest saw it all in reruns a few years later, when the battleground had moved on to, say, birth control for the elder sibs.
Yes, there is a direct line between birth control and Peyton Place. In the book they don’t have any, and disastrous plot developments ensue. But unwed mothers aren’t the only scandals: there’s chronic inebriation, financial chicanery, incest and illegitimate children. In fact, there’s hardly a character in the book who doesn’t have a secret.
The novel by Grace Metalious was published in 1956 and some of the book’s impact must have come from her device of tearing the mask of respectability off the small-town characters. The 1950s were conventional years, but by the same token there’s voyeuristic satisfaction in seeing conventions ignored. But the other part of the book’s scandalous appeal was the frank and frequent discussion of sex. Certainly the characters never get up to anything that would be rated higher than “R” by today’s MPAA, but that was pretty hot stuff at the time.
Literary quality? Middling. Some of the characters are individuals, most are just outlines. The writing is not distracting, for good or for ill. The book’s structure is episodic, but not in a way that builds tension; events are strung along, with very little connecting emotional charge. This isn’t a big book like Gone With the Wind, where you feel the pull of various narrative tensions through the length of the tale. It reads like what it became: soap opera.