Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Ties that Bind: A Book Review on The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen

Willa Jackson is determined to put her past behind her, including her connections to her family's former mansion, the Blue Ridge Madam, which they lost after encountering financial troubles in the 1930s. Paxton Osgood has taken on a new project: restoring the Blue Ridge Madam, a landmark southern family plantation home, and turning into a inn. Previously happy to keep their distance from each other, Willa and Paxton find their lives thrown together after the restoration unearths a skeleton buried beneath a peach tree on the property. Determined to discover the truth and understand this long buried secret, Willa and Paxton must work together to understand the circumstances surrounding the skeleton and how their new friendship is a powerful force ready to transform their lives for the better.

I've been keeping up with Sarah Addison Allen's books for the last few years, at least since the publication of The Sugar Queen back in 2008. I've honestly enjoyed each of them and The Peach Keeper is the latest release, making a total of four books available now by the author. Allen creates a special brand of magical realism in her novels with enough of the supernatural to appeal to the reader but is also grounded enough in reality to come across as not only endearing stories but also as believable circumstances for those more skeptical readers.

Each of Allen's books focuses on two separate main characters whose storylines converge periodically over the course of the novel. In this case the characters are Willa Jackson, a young woman determined to keep her life on a responsible tract in order to not disappoint her beloved father and grandmother, and Paxton Osgood, a society woman disillusioned with the circumstances of her life who fills her schedule with the work of three people to avoid the fact that she's not happy. Their grandmothers were best friends when they were young but financial difficulties for the Jackson family led to Georgie Jackson eventually leaving her friendship with Agatha Osgood behind, solidifying the lines between the newly poor Georgie and the still well-off Agatha to the point that Willa was still able to feel the distinction between herself and the rest of the "society" women more than 70 years later. However, this "distinction" seems to be a sticking point that Willa has managed to build up in her head. Misconceptions seem to rule the world in this book and as a result, some of the plot points seem a bit too neat when they come to a resolution.

The fact that Allen chooses to follow two characters allows for a more thorough examination of relationships. With two separate point-of-views, the relationships are allowed the chance to be seen, examined and understood in such a way that allows for a rounder character to be established. Willa's background is given not only through the details that she provides in her narration but also through the secrets that she learns from people she encounters such as Agatha Osgood and Paxton's twin brother Colin. Paxton's story is fleshed out with the details given by Sebastian Rogers, her new best friend and former school classmate, her twin brother and her grandmother. In a way it is formulaic. The same use of secondary characters can be seen in previous works. The reader can go into each of these books and know that they'll follow the lives of two different women as they come to a crossroads in their lives. It may seem routine now to some readers but it is a routine that works most of the time.

The mystery of this story is an intriguing one, more of a thriller type storyline then the previous works have been. The development is concise although it can be argued that the mystery is more of a secondary plot compared to the characters relationships in this book. The presence of the skeleton seems to be meant to cast a pall over the lives of the whole town but a true threat is never realized over the course of the story. The main focus of this book is the inner workings of Willa and Paxton and even their struggles don't seem to be too far out of reach for them to end up with positive conclusions. However, the main draw seems to be a study of friendships, those in the past and new ones in the present and how powerful these connections can be. Whether or not they hit the mark and prove to the reader that friendship is a powerful asset is a subject for debate. Also, the true supernatural elements seen in past novels are not as present in this book. Readers looking for an all-out fantastical escape will not be satisfied with this book as its more grounded in reality, focusing on the relationships between family and friends.

In the end though, The Peach Keeper is a likable release but some of the development concerning the plot and secondary characters could have used a little work. It felt as if the book ended too soon or had so much unrealized potential that never quite hit the mark once you read the last page. Unfortunate but not a reason to throw in the towel just yet on upcoming releases. Allen's work is still good, charming and whimsical, and worth a read when you get the chance.

Rating: 7 Stars

It's a good book but off the top of my head I'd recommend The Sugar Queen as an example of Sarah Addison Allen's best work. It has enough magic and sweetness to make for an enjoyable reading experience. I've actually given that novel as a gift, that's how much I enjoyed it. I carried it around for a while too, but I didn't get the same rush so much with this one. Allen is set to release a new book in 2013, tentatively titled Lost Lake. I'm still invested enough in this author to put that release down on my must-have list despite my misgivings of this book.

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