Tuesday, September 13, 2011

How to find peaches, sugar, and magic between the pages:

Not every book is Pride and Prejudice. And thank goodness for that, right? Don't get me wrong, I love me some Elizabeth and Darcy. But not every book can be fine literature, otherwise the true gems wouldn't shine. And not every book should be emotionally intense. Otherwise, we wouldn't read for pleasure. I admit that I didn't always read for pleasure; I used to be a huge literary snob. Back when I lived and breathed English Department Seriousness, I wouldn't have been caught dead reading The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen. But sometimes you need to relax and read a bit of silly, magical fluff. And when it comes to silly, magical fluff, Ms. Allen has you covered.

All of Allen's stories are set in a modern but genteel version of the American South that seems imaginary to me: Men wear seersucker, and women fan themselves on verandas. Her main characters are single young women who look for friendship and love while untangling the mysteries of their ancestors' pasts. Sugary food and magic figure prominently. Allen's characters often work magic and influence others through their baking or their gardens, and they find easy answers to their problems. It's wish fulfillment, and it's cheesy, but it's FUN. Imagine a simpler version of Like Water for Chocolate written about white southern women, but with sweet, crowd-pleasing endings and NO burning beds. Allen's stories don't haunt you for years--but that's okay. They're just for fun!

The Peach Keeper doesn't deviate from this formula. I don't want to spoil the plot, because I recommend it for light weekend or vacation reading. But I want to address the one thing that bothers me about it: The characterization is weak, and Allen relies heavily on stock character types: The Joker, the Stick Man, the Princess, and the Freak.

Good writing doesn't tell, it shows. So I prefer when authors allow me to draw my own conclusions based on the character's behavior and dialogue. Introducing a supporting character by saying, "Rachel had lived a vagabond and bohemian life, and she knew a lot about human nature," is lazy writing, and it grates on me. How and why are those things supposed to be related? Travel doesn't necessarily make a person good at reading others; that's a generalization. Show me that Rachel understands other people well. The book is full of lines like that. This is just one example.

So don't read it because you're looking for vivid, original characters. Read it for the scent of peaches wafting through every page, for the friendship that lasts a lifetime despite class issues and a horrifying secret, for the deliciously catty descriptions of snooty society ladies, and for the gentle reminder that sometimes you don't need to transcend your past--you need to embrace it.

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P.S. All trolls will be fed to the bookworms.