Confession: I sent my husband out last night to retrieve this book for me while I made dinner for the kids and tried to breathe deeply. This pregnancy . . .it palls, you guys. The thing is, he was happy to do it and even (after some creative detective work) snagged the very last copy at our local bookstore! I was incredibly relieved. Because all I wanted to do last night, after dinner and talking to my two squirts, and reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with Will, was get comfortable on the couch and drift off into the wonderful world of Walls of Water, North Carolina. I'm telling you, there is nothing, but nothing like a brand new Sarah Addison Allen book when it comes to comfort reading. You just know you're gonna get the full southern treatment, that the prose will be lighter than air, and that magic will swirl through your veins like cream in one of Rachel's red-and-white striped coffee cups. These are the things you can count on, and The Peach Keeper doesn't disappoint in the slightest.
Willa Jackson returned to the stifling confines of her hometown of Walls of Water, North Carolina eight years ago when her father died. Despite her eternally restless nature, Willa resolved to buckle down and be the docile daughter her father had always wanted, even though it was now too late. So she bought the local organic sporting goods store and settled into a life of safe monotony. She visits her elderly grandmother once a week in the nursing home, even though Georgie doesn't recognize her anymore. She does her laundry every Friday night without fail. And if she sometimes drives up to sit and look at the old Blue Ridge Madam mansion and wonder, well, that's her business. Paxton Osgood is determined to restore the Blue Ridge Madam to its former glory and put on the best gala the Women's Society Club has ever seen. But things start going wrong from the get go, and obsessively detail-oriented Paxton is afraid everything will fall apart at her feet. It's now when she needs this success most of all, especially as her stalwart friendship with former outcast Sebastian Rogers is bleeding into uncharted waters. Then Paxton's twin Colin returns home to help with the renovation and, when he runs across Willa, remembers all the reasons he left in the first place. Meanwhile, a strange presence is swirling its way through the town, stirring up old ghosts better left hidden. Against her better judgement, Willa is drawn into the disturbing events up on Jackson Hill and into the lives of the Osgood family once more.
I'll go ahead and say that I went in wondering whether The Peach Keeper would fall more along the lines of Ms. Addison's first two novels (Garden Spells and The Sugar Queen) or her most recent third book The Girl Who Chased the Moon. I've read and loved all three, but there did seem to me to be a slight divide between the first two and the third. The characters felt more even, a bit stronger in the first two, the flow smoother and more balanced. The writing, as always, is of the highest quality across all of her books. For example, here is the opening passage of The Peach Keeper, just to whet your appetite:
The day Paxton Osgood took the box of heavy-stock, foil-lined envelopes to the post office, the ones she’s had a professional calligrapher address, it began to rain so hard the air turned as white as bleached cotton. By nightfall, rivers had crested at flood stage and, for the first time since 1936, the mail couldn’t be delivered. When things began to dry out, when basements were pumped free of water and branches were cleared from yards and streets, the invitations were finally delivered, but to all the wrong houses. Neighbors laughed over fences, handing the misdelivered pieces of mail to their rightful owners with comments about the crazy weather and their careless postman. The next day, an unusual number of people showed up at the doctor’s office with infected paper cuts, because the envelopes had sealed, cement like, from the moisture. Later, the single-card invitations themselves seemed to hide and pop back up at random. Mrs. Jameson’s invitation disappeared for two days, then reappeared in a bird’s nest outside. Harper Rowley’s invitation was found in the church bell tower, Mr. Kingsley’s in his elderly mother’s garden shed.
If anyone had been paying attention to the signs, they would have realized that air turns white when things are about to change, that paper cuts mean there’s more to what’s written on the page than meets the eye, and that birds are always out to protect you from things you don’t see.
See what I mean? You can just count on her. I'm delighted to say that The Peach Keeper is one of Sarah Addison Allen's best works to date. It fully lives up to the promise of each of her previous novels and instantly shot to my keeper shelf. I read it in one sitting last night, and it was an infinitely blissful experience spending time with Willa, Paxton, Colin, and Sebastian. The wonderful thing about this book is that I was equally enamored of and involved in the story lines of both main characters. I mentioned before that I tend to identify with one heroine over another in Allen's books and, since the point of view alternates back and forth between them, I occasionally wish I was back with the other before I actually am. This was happily not at all the case here. Willa and Paxton are so different in personality and background and yet I loved them both equally. And not only them, but their relationships with their family members and their respective young men. It was very interesting (and amusing) watching Willa struggle to come to grips with a possible relationship with Colin, who is Paxton's twin. Even more moving was Paxton's relationship with Sebastian--a troubled young man on the fringe of society, who caught her eye once in high school and has now grown into an incredibly complex and magnetic adult who, despite his respectable job and tailored suits, still exists just on the edges. Their interactions brought tears to my eyes multiple times. I ached for them. And the few scenes that all four share together are breathtaking and funny. The Peach Keeper is at once haunting and charming, in that perfect blend of magic and realism that Sarah Addison Allen has worked into an art form. Highly recommended.
Boston Book Bums Review