Please join Rachel on Sunday, December 11, 2016 from 3-5 p.m. at the fabulous Elliott Bay Book Company to celebrate the launch of the second Ann Dexter novel, Notes from Hell. Come early to get your holiday book shopping in at one of the best independent bookstores in Seattle and stay for snacks, drinks and song! Because this novel has an opera theme, two talented local vocalists will perform La ce Darem la Mano from Mozart’s Opera Don Giovanni. Rachel will read from and sign copies of her new novel. Guaranteed fun and frivolity!
On Thursday, November 17th, 2016 Rachel will be joining fellow Pacific Northwest mystery writers Martha Crites and Curt Colbert at the Port Townsend Library for a panel discussion moderated by Waverly Fitzgerald, Managing Editor of Rat City Publishing. We will be discussing how and why we write mysteries, read short passages from our novels and answer questions. Signed copies of our books will be available for puchase afterwards.
Peyton Place surprised me. What is now called an iconic novel of the mid-fifties, for me Peyton Place represented the first book I thought of as “dirty.” Like Valley of the Dolls, Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious, was one of those books that the moms in my neighborhood whispered about but seemed to all be reading. This must have been in the mid-sixties when Peyton Place, the TV series began its five year run. This notoriety reminds me of a current novel that seems to be in that same category: Fifty Shades of Grey, which I have not read but have heard so much about. After reading Peyton Place, however, I realized that I’d gotten it all wrong. This is not a smutty novel. It is simply a novel that shocked its early audience with its honesty. The subject of Peyton Place is not sex, though sex is underneath most of the main characters’ personal dilemmas, the themes here include hypocrisy and secrecy, coming of age and a new way of looking at female sexuality.
The setting is a small town in New Hampshire where everything is tidy and all the residents keep up appearances. The plot follows the story of three female characters: a middle-aged woman, Constance MacKenzie, who worries that her secret, her daughter’s illegitimacy, will be discovered and ruin her life; the woman’s daughter, Allison, who believes her father is dead and aspires to be a writer who searches for truth, and another adolescent girl, Selena Cross, who suffers ongoing sexual abuse from her stepfather. The forward to the Fiftieth Anniversary edition explains that Metalious’ publisher insisted that the abuser in the novel be changed from father to stepfather. Incest was a topic that simply could not be written about in the mid-nineteen fifties. The author was angered by this change and said that it turned her book from “tragedy to trash.”
Peyton Place is also about class privilege. The abuse of Selena Cross is easily overlooked because she belongs to a family living in a shack, literally on the wrong side of the tracks. The town women are interested in Selena because she is beautiful and polite and has a good work ethic. Despite their class differences, Selena is a classmate and friend of Allison MacKenzie. Selena’s mother, Nellie, is the MacKenzie’s housekeeper. Eventually Selena works in Constance MacKenzie’s high-end dress shop.
The male characters in the book are mostly members of the good-ole boy network of movers and shakers who live on Chestnut Street: Leslie Harrington, the owner of Cumberland Mills, a board member of the local bank, chairman of the Peyton Place school board and a very rich man; Seth Buswell, owner of the local newspaper The Peyton Place Times and Doc Swain, the town doctor who becomes important for intervening in Selena Cross’ life at two crucial turning points. The other group of male characters literally live on the wrong side of the tracks in shacks without running water and work in the lumber industry either cutting trees or, like Selena’s stepfather, Lucas Cross, working as carpenters. This lower class of men are stereotypically drunks and wife beaters. But the town, including the social workers, mostly turn a blind eye to what happens in their households because they possess the most highly-valued New England characteristic: they pay their bills.
As the plot unfolds, we wonder whether Seth Buswell and Doc Swain will succeed in instituting zoning laws which will help bring running water to the shacks, whether Allison MacKenzie will realize her dream of a writing career and whether Selena will escape from her abusive stepfather. We also wonder whether Constance MacKenzie will lighten up enough to engage in an open relationship with the stranger who comes to town, Tomas Makris, the “Greek feller from New York” who arrives in the Fall as the school’s new headmaster. Though Constance has had an illegitimate child she tells herself that “she had never been highly sexed. . . ” that her affair with Allison MacKenzie for whom she names their daughter,” was a thing born of loneliness. . . .Men were not necessary for they were unreliable at best and nothing but the creators of trouble.” As an outsider, Makris sees Peyton Place for what it is, a small town in which lived two kinds of people: “Those who manufactured and maintained tedious, expensive shells, and those who did not. Those who did, lived in constant terror lest the shells of their own making crack open to display the weakness that was underneath, and those who did not were either crushed or toughened.” He is immediately attracted to Constance MacKenzie and some of the steamy scenes in the novel are between Tom and Constance.
The setting in small town New Hampshire is beautifully drawn. Nature surrounds the town and is a refuge for the
innocent Allison MacKenzie. She likes to walk out of town and hike up the hill where “the delights of childhood were all around her, and here on the hill she did not feel that she was peculiar and different from her contemporaries.” From on top of the hill at Road’s End, Allison liked to look down at the town spread out below her. “She could see the belfry of the grade school, the church spires and the winding, blue road of the Connecticut River with the red brick mills, like growths, attached to one of its sides.” Allison is happiest in the woods, “one of the few remaining stands of lumber in northern New England which had never been cut, for the town ended below Memorial Park and the terrain above had always been considered too rocky and uneven for development.” . . . She felt a deep sense of ownership toward the woods. She loved them and she had learned them well through every season of the year. She knew where the first arbutus trailed in the spring, when there were still large patches of snow on the ground, and she knew the quiet, shady places where the violets made purple clusters after the snows had disappeared.” Allison is truly comfortable here. “She could move quietly through the woods with a gracefulness that she never possessed away from them . . . ” In the woods with Allison is where Peyton Place begins and where it ends. And while, as a young girl, Allison echoes the sentiment of her mother, certain she wants little to do with men, in the end a man comes looking for her.
Peyton Place surprised me not only because it isn’t a prurient novel packed with sex scenes, but also because it is quite nuanced and well-written. Early on, it’s clear that Metalious’ novel may have been shocking to its mid-fifties readers not only because it included some sensuality, but because from the very first sentence, it’s clear that women in this novel are sexual beings, just like men. In this way, Peyton Place was ahead of its time and might now be considered feminist in its views. The very first sentences titillate the reader with the idea of female sensuality: “Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay.” Constance MacKenzie definitely has sexual passions but they have been repressed for so long that it takes Tomas Makris a long time to release them. Constance’s daughter Allison, however, knows early on that she longs for a career and that she won’t let men or sex get in the way of that. When her high school friend asks her if she plans to get married when she’s old, she replies, “No. I’m going to have affairs instead.” After she gets a job writing in New York, however, she publishes a story in a major magazine about a young woman who, like her, aspires to be the boss in a publishing company but settles for marrying the boss instead. It is the mid-fifties after all.
I’m glad I read Peyton Place and I recommend it as a well-written novel with a solid plot. And, as a reflection of a particular time and place, Peyton Place is brilliant.
I started my research for the next bookstore in the usual way – Googled “Best Independent bookstores in New Hampshire.” First in line was a Yankee Magazine review which I’d seen during another such search. Sadly though, the only New Hampshire bookstore listed there had a note beside it ‘’Closed,” which reminded me that I sure hope all the bookstores I’ve contacted during my literary road trip are still open when I’m finished. It is taking a while.
So, I moved on to the New England Independent Booksellers Association’s website where I found a long list of bookshops under the sidebar: Find Local Stores. Charmed by the names of the towns in New Hampshire (so far from Seattle) that I spent some time imagining what these places might be like: Center Harbor, Concord, Durham, Exeter, Keene, Laconia, Meredith, Milford, Nashua, New London, North Conway Village, Peterborough, Portsmouth, Warner and Wolfeboro. Then I looked through the names of the bookshops: Bayswater Book Co., Toadstool Bookshop, Innisfree Bookshop, Sheafe Street Books. I felt particularly drawn to RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth. So I went there.
RiverRun’s website is simple but attractive: photos scrolliing past across the top banner. First, two author photos: one author looking intense and the other looking playful while sipping an espresso. Then up pops a graphic for a book imprint Piscataqua Press – We publish books! My eye travels down the page and lands on this: Welcome to RiverRun Bookstore, Home of the Brave. We’d really love to see you in person but if you can’t make it to Portsmouth we hope you will take advantage of our home here on the web to buy books, read our recommendations, and leave us a note. This welcome makes me smile and I know I don’t really have to check out any of those other New Hampshire bookstores on the list. I have found the right place.
I spend some time watching as photos of authors and their books scroll through, along with appearance dates. Clicking on the “Events” button leads me to a new page where I discover that RiverRun hosts over one hundred author events each year! Hooray! Now I’m wishing for a trip to Portsmouth. The next event I see features an author and her dog Finnegan. Now I really want to read these children’s books: The Adventures of Finnegan Begin and Finnegan for Mayor! The dog is adorable. I love dogs. Now I like this bookstore even more. But I continue moving around the website just to see what else they offer.
The “About Us” page tells me that they are “living the dream!” That is, they’re doing what so many of us wish we could do: run a bookstore! Over twelve years ago the owners took the plunge and opened RiverRun. All it took, they say, was “guts and faith in the community.” Lovely. I make the call.
I explain my project to Judy who answers the phone and is immediately enthusiastic about helping me. She asks for my phone number so she can do a little research, talk to some of the other booksellers and get back to me. I always like this response. Judy is taking my request seriously. When she calls me back later in the day, she suggests four different authors, two I’ve heard of: John Irving (of course!) and Grace Metalious, whose name doesn’t ring a bell until Judy invokes the name of her racy blockbuster novel, Peyton Place, and I can’t help but snicker. The other authors are: Ernest Hebert, Rebecca Rule and Jessie Crockett. Never heard of any of them and that’s excellent. I love discovering new authors. Judy then suggests I take some time and research the authors she’s mentioned and get back to her when I decide which books to order. This is a great idea and after some time spent scrolling around the internet, I go for Ernest Hebert and, of course, Peyton Place! I’m too young to remember when this novel first came out, but I do remember that there was a television series in the sixties which the moms in my neighborhood talked about in hushed tones, so that I knew it must be something forbidden, even dirty! Of course, I confess, this intrigued me enough at the time that I looked up the book at my neighborhood library and flipped through the pages hoping to find the good parts. Maybe it’s about time I read the whole thing. After all, Wikipedia tells me that the novel sold over 60,000 copies on the day it was released and is really meant to be a composite of all small towns where ugliness rears its head, and where the people try to hide all the skeletons in their closets. It’s based on and was written in several small towns in New Hampshire.
Judy tells me to expect a delay in getting the books because, what with the latest snowstorm in the Northeast, mail is neither coming in nor going out of Portsmouth that day. I mention that I’m calling from Seattle and tell Judy that it’s a gorgeous sunny day here with an expected high near sixty and that I’m looking out my window at my neighbor’s plum tree in full bloom. Judy is happy for me, but says that looking out the window at RiverRun, all she sees is white.
I had the pleasure of reading The Land of Mango Sunsets, by Dorothea Benton Frank on the beach in Hawaii – a perfect backdrop for it. The novel begins with a Prologue explaining why the narrator calls the low country of South Carolina “the land of mango sunsets.” It’s a lovely romantic story involving a honeymoon in the South Pacific and a plate of sliced mangoes, “dripping with fleshy sweetness” delivered each morning along with a simple breakfast tray. It’s a charming image of young honeymooners eating mangoes behind mosquito netting in their bed. And it’s an image that stays with the reader, as it has with the narrator, who says, “mangoes were equated with love, tenderness, and hopeful beginnings, and we spent our lives looking everywhere for other examples of them.” We expect then that this will be a story of hopeful beginnings with maybe a little love and tenderness thrown in.
We also discover in the prologue that this place of mango sunsets is the place where the narrator’s family “had kept the same cottage for over one hundred years” and where, as a young girl, she remembered pausing to watch the sunset: “. . . [T]here was a sliver of time late in the day when the sun hung in the western sky, after it stopped burning white and before it dropped into the horizon. For just a few minutes it would transform itself into a red orange orb.” And her father called it “the mango sunset.” Lovely.
Dorothea Benton Frank, like Pat Conroy, has deep feelings about this part of the South Carolina low country, Sullivan’s Island, where “a chorus of bird whistles and song” began and ended each day, where “the pungent smells of salt and wet earth haunt me . . . I could smell rain coming, sense a storm, and knew enough to be afraid of fast water that would spin you away from life in an instant.” The difference though is that for Conroy the land itself is tied up with twisted memories of family dysfunction while for Frank, the low country is a place where family thrived, “there were the leathered but loving hands and peppermint breath of old people, always there to help.” In The Prince of Tides, Conroy has written a lament while Frank has written a love song.
The novel begins in earnest in New York, another parallel to The Prince of Tides but Frank’s protagonist is not just visiting, Miriam Elizabeth Swanson lives in the city and appears to be just as snobbish and cold as her name suggests. It’s the story of Miriam making her life in New York in her fabulous apartment which she has had to subdivide and rent out after her husband divorced her to marry a much younger woman with whom he has children. Miriam is bitter and carries that bitterness with her in most of her personal interactions. She is not particularly likeable. She barely speaks to her two grown sons, having alienated them during her divorce by forcing them to choose between her and their father. She does have one lovely friend and tenant, Kevin Dolan, with whom she shares frequent cocktail hours and dinners and I can’t help wondering, early on, why this man cares for her at all.
Miriam’s problem is that she is striving hard to maintain her place in the Manhattan social scene which her husband’s wealth had insured. But now that he’s gone, so is her social standing. She is snubbed by the league of women who spend their time volunteering for the appropriate charities, in this case, the art museum. Miriam’s other problem is that her other tenant has died suddenly and she needs to rent his space as soon as possible because she needs the income. The new tenant she settles on, Liz Harper, is young and beautiful and, in the way of all strangers who come to town in fiction, is about to stir things up. She will become the catalyst for Miriam’s transformation from bitter peri-menopausal woman to loving mother, grandmother and daughter, and a woman for whom the chance of a grown-up loving relationship with a man is once again possible. But it’s not just the stranger coming to town that saves Miriam, she must also reconnect with her roots in South Carolina and face her mother’s mortality.
I thoroughly enjoyed Miriam’s journey from phony wannabe socialite to loving and loveable woman. I loved it when her nemesis in the volunteer world gets her comeuppance and also watching Miriam take baby steps toward kindness to her fellow human beings and her own family. The writing is solid — lovely in parts — and the characters are well drawn. It’s a story that made me feel good. I can’t help it if I like happy endings. And, too, I love the fact that my copy of The Land of Mango Sunsets has that slightly warped look that happens when most of the reading takes place on the beach with the book resting against a wet swimsuit and perilously close to the surf.