|I’ve been a big fan of Sarah Addison Allen ever since the publication of her 2008 debut novel, Garden Spells. She reads like Alice Hoffman on anti-depressants, with Hoffman’s touch of magical realism but without the bittersweet endings. Her latest, The Peach Keeper, is another charming, slightly quirky Southern novel.
Willa Jackson has spent most of her life in Walls of Water, North Carolina, but she never quite fit in. Until the Great Depression, the Jacksons were the wealthiest family in town, but hard times reduced Willa’s grandmother to serving as a maid to the Osgoods, the town’s other leading family. By the time Willa grew up, the Jacksons were no longer poor, but Willa continued to feel like an outcast, and her notoriety as a high school prankster was the only way to address the restless energy she felt inside. A series of wild adventures during college left her sadder and wiser. Now age 30, Willa owns a sporting goods store and tries to live as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. So when she receives an invitation from former classmate Paxton Osgood to the grand re-opening of the Blue Madam, the Jackson’s former family estate, Willa is determined to avoid the event at all costs.
Paxton Osgood has always done exactly what her parents wanted her to do, including serving as president of the Women’s Society Club that was co-founded by her grandmother Agatha and Willa’s grandmother Georgie. Paxton’s twin brother Colin flew the coop as soon as possible to avoid the burden of family expectations, but he has returned temporarily to supervise the landscaping around the Blue Madam’s renovations. Colin is intrigued with Willa, who thinks he is a pretentious rich boy, while Paxton is hopelessly in love with her flamboyantly gay best friend Sebastian.
Nobody knows what a large peach tree is doing in the mountainous terrain in front of the Blue Madam. When its removal reveals the skeleton of a man, Willa and Paxton form an unlikely friendship as they try to piece together what happened 75 years ago that led to the unknown man’s burial. Although the clues point towards their grandmothers as keys to the mystery, the two young women are determined to uncover the truth. Their deepening friendship also allows them to help each other make but brave difficult choices about their respective futures.
Allen packs an amazing amount of plot into a brief 273 pages, including friendship, romance, magic and mystery. Without being too preachy she conveys some worthwhile lessons about growing up and being true to oneself. Colin has admired Willa for years because she wasn’t afraid to be different in high school, but Willa insists she has to remain in Walls of Water to find herself while Colin has always needed to get away. Paxton and Sebastian also have to look beyond the surface and struggle with the past before they can resolve their relationship.
Magic is woven subtly into the book – an invitation that disappears and reappears without logic, a women’s club meeting that becomes a surprising confessional, a flock of birds that gather for no apparent reason – and it adds a wonderful Southern gothic flavor to the story. Reading a book by Sarah Addison Allen is like eating a small, ripe peach – it’s sweet, delightful, and over too quickly. I would love to see Allen tackle a longer novel with more characters and greater depth, but until then I will look for her annual release as a welcome harbinger of Spring. If you haven’t yet read her back catalog – The Sugar Queen, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, and her unique debut Garden Spells, you are missing out on something special.