Sarah Addison Allen’s 2011 novel, The Peach Keeper, takes place in the town Walls of Water in North Carolina. Set near mountains and mystery, shrouded in fog, Allen disembarks from her usual light and delicate magical realism to attempt a darker novel, one with a murder mystery. Unfortunately, while I deeply appreciate her attempt at suspense, The Peach Keeper comes across as forced and piecemeal.
Willa Jackson and Paxton Osgood are unlikely friends living down their high-school memories as adult women. During the renovation of the Blue Ridge Madam, a beautiful old antebellum mansion that used to belong to Willa’s ancestors, a body is discovered. The discovery and investigation of the body bring Willa and Paxton together on the trail of their grandmother’s secrets. While this is the plot described on the cover of the book, the body isn’t discovered until half-way through the novel, meaning there’s a lot of unnecessary set-up that doesn’t quite fit.
Allen sticks to her usual magical realism at times, but it seems disjointed in the context of the mystery. At one point a group of women start spontaneously revealing their innermost secrets to each other, but there’ s no explanation as to why this occurs, and it never resurfaces for conflict resolution. Throughout the novel there are forced mentions of fantastical things; a bell over a door ringing but no one entering, the scent of peaches floating on the air. We get that they’re supposed to be manifestations of a ghost, but they’re too obvious.
In her prior novels, Allen’s character’s inner-dialogues were realistic and true to life if not a little fluffy; in The Peach Keeper they are grasping and cliché. Paxton’s crush on her best friend is described in several different ways, when we get it loud and clear. There’s far too much telling, and not enough showing.
If I could compare The Peach Keeper to The Sugar Queen, I would say The Sugar Queen is a wispy, airy, bakery-made cupcake with whipped frosting that feels light as air in your mouth, while The Peach Keeper tastes like a mass-produced Little Debbie snack–sweet, but not the home-made baked good you were craving.
Reading on her Facebook page, I know that Sarah has just undergone surgery, chemo, and radiation for breast cancer. I’m sad I have to give The Peach Keeper a negative review as I really loved The Sugar Queen and Garden Spells. I know I, like all her fans and readers, are wishing her a speedy recovery as we anticipate her next book.
(I received an advance copy from LibraryThing)