Monday, April 4, 2011

Just peachy…

The Peach Keeper
by Sarah Addison Allen

I enjoyed Sarah Addison Allen’s debut novel, Garden Spells. For no particular reason, I haven’t managed to read any of her subsequent novels until this latest. And while I enjoyed this light romantic read, I must admit to having some complaints—which apparently puts me very much in the minority, if my fellow reviewers are any indication.

Set in fictional Walls of Water, North Carolina’s answer to Niagara Falls, The Peach Keeper is primarily the story of two women. The “have” of the story is Paxton Osgood, the perfectionist daughter of one of the town’s wealthiest families. The “have not” is Willa Jackson. Once upon a time, it was the Jackson family that was at the very crest of Walls of Water’s society, but that was generations ago. Their family lost their money, position, and ancestral home the year her grandmother was 17. Now, Willa leads a modest and fairly isolated life while running her sporting goods store. She’s an only child, her parents have passed away, and her grandmother has been lost to dementia for years.

Suddenly, though, there are a lot of events shaking up Willa’s staid life. The Osgood family has purchased the Blue Ridge Madam, the long-abandoned mansion of the Jackson family. They are turning it into a high-end inn, but first it will serve as the site of the Ladies Society’s 75th anniversary gala. The Society that was formed all those years ago by Pax and Willa’s grandmothers, best friends at the time. This upcoming event seems to be a catalyst for many events in the present, and also for unraveling long buried mysteries (and at least one skeleton) from the past.

In addition to the relationship between these two very different women, it is about their relationships with the men in their lives. As I mentioned above, it was light, romantic reading, and I enjoyed the novel in a superficial sort of way. The characters were likable and the prose readable. But the further I got into the novel, the more problems I had with plot contrivances. An example: of the two couples, I enjoyed the story of Paxton and Sebastian more, but the whole conflict of the potential relationship between these best friends comes down to an “is he or isn’t he” question. And all it would have taken to get past this conflict is just a tiny little bit of communication. Addison Allen presents opportunity after opportunity for these characters to clear the air. And they come right up against the moment of truth again and again—and they turn back. Some might call this narrative tension, but realistically, I have to call it a fairly naked plot contrivance. Any normal human beings would have hashed things out one way or another. When I really stop and think about it, my biggest problem is that in many instances, I didn't buy the motivations for the actions of the characters. This was equally true of Willa and Colin.

Neither the mystery from the past nor the fantastic elements scattered throughout the novel really went anywhere either. So in the end, this was a novel of relationships for me. And it was entertaining for a few hours. But I just can’t muster the enthusiasm to rave about this one.

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