Sunday, August 8, 2010

Guest Review - - The Book of Peach

The Book of Peach
By Penelope J. Stokes
Publisher: Berkley
Release Date: August 3, 2010

Priscilla Bell Posner “Peach” Rondell, Soybean Queen, Miss Ole Miss, and second runner-up to Miss Mississippi, left Chulahatchie, Mississippi, the day after she graduated from college. For twenty-three years, she rarely returned home, choosing to avoid rather than confront her impossible-to-please mother whose mission in life was to see Peach transformed into a proper Southern Lady. At forty-five, with her marriage disintegrated and her checking account anemic, Peach, at the suggestion of her psychiatrist, returns to Belladonna, the Greek Revival house her father bought and restored for her mother.

The Book of Peach is not a romance. It lacks even a strong romantic element. It is one woman’s “fearless, gutsy, unedited confrontation” with herself. For one year, Peach follows her psychiatrist’s advice to “Keep a journal. Listen to your soul.” Peach’s journey to self-knowledge is not heroic; it is often messy, frequently painful, and always difficult. She makes some bad choices, and at times she behaves more like a self-centered adolescent than like a woman at mid-life. She has an affair with a man she meets in the produce section of the local Piggly Wiggly for many reasons, none of them wise. She writes of the affair in her journal in language reminiscent of a rule-resisting teen:

He is irresistible. Or to be more precise, the whole thing is irresistible. The sneaking around. The forbiddeness of it. The adrenaline rush. The giddiness. He makes me feel like a sexy, attractive, desirable woman, and I gravitate toward him like a hummingbird to sugar water.

Frankly, I didn’t much like the Peach for the first section of the book. She impressed me as an immature woman filled with self-pity and determined to blame her mother for all that was wrong with her. She also struck me as a woman out of her time. She would have been born in the mid-60s and have come of age in the late 80s, but her references and experiences seemed to fit a woman a decade or so older. I loved Stokes’s prose, and I took particular delight in Peach’s description of her mother’s satin gowns with matching peignoirs and coordinating slippers: “I suspect she’s channeling Loretta Young, but I wouldn’t say so out loud.” But I’m older than forty-five, and I can remember the ultra elegant and feminine Loretta Young from her television show that ended in the early 60s. I’m not so certain that a woman a decade or more younger than I would share my memory, and that uncertainty pulled me out of the story.

I had the same reaction to Peach’s explanation of the good-girls-don’t rule:

Good girls don’t do a lot of things. But most important, good girls don’t have premarital (or extramarital or nonmarital) sex. On the other hand, if they do have premarital sex, good girls don’t get pregnant. And . . . if they do get pregnant, good girls don’t let the bastard get away without paying for it.

Even in the conservative South, this seems dated for attitudes typical of the 1980s.

Peach becomes a much more sympathetic character in Part II. She discovers Heartbreak Café and comes to know an assortment of characters that work and hang out there. Their acceptance of her without conditions frees her to recognize herself as “a spoiled, selfish child who stamps her foot and throws a tantrum and in the same moment demands that she be taken seriously as a grown-up” and to see her mother as a person with dreams and fears and pain that Peach has never known about.

Coming of age stories conventionally feature youthful protagonists who move from innocence to experience, but in a larger sense The Book of Peach is a true coming of age story because the protagonist moves from ignorance of who she is and how she fits into her world to self-knowledge and acceptance. Like those young protagonists, Peach is still a work in progress. There are no neat resolutions to complex problems in this story. Peach stays to care for her aging, ill mother motivated by “eighty percent duty and twenty percent love,” but she hopes the balance may someday shift.

I never thought about it from that point of view, but maybe being a mother is sometimes eighty percent duty and twenty percent love, as well. And if Mama did the best she could with me, well, then, I guess I’ll just do the best I can with her.

Stokes’s 2009 novel Heartbreak Café features the same cast of characters as The Book of Peach, but the earlier story is from the point of view of Dell Haley, owner of the café. The two books share a cast of characters: Peach, Dell, Scratch, Boone Atkins, Purdy Overstreet, Hoot Everett, and Fart Unger all appear in both books. I already have Heartbreak Café on hold at my library. I want to see these characters, including Peach, from another perspective. I’ll also keep an eye out for other books by Penelope J. Stokes. If you are strictly a romance reader, Stokes is probably not an author you’ll appreciate; but if you enjoy, as I do, the novels of writers such as Dorothea Benton Frank, Emilie Richards, or Adriana Trigiani, I think you will relish this book.



  1. Thanks for the review, Janga! I enjoy reading about heroines with some life experience and the books of Frank, Trigiani and Richards are some of my favorites in that group so I'll probably give this one a try.

  2. Wow, Janga, it sounds like the heroine really grows in this story. In order to triumph, you have to struggle. Thanks for the review!

  3. PJ, I think you will appreciate the Southernness of this book too. Some of Stokes's descriptions are heart-stirringly lovely. I found this particularly true of her descriptions of spring in the Southland.

  4. Buffie, if I finish a book liking and connecting to a character that I disliked early on, I know the author has awesome characterization skills.

  5. This should be one I'll enjoy. We all need to "come of age" and if we are lucky, we will manage to do that at every stage of our lives.