What is it about the South that makes all relationships seem more complex, all bonds deeper? Sarah Addison Allen sets The Peach Keeper in Walls of Water, North Carolina, a town divided between the hiker newbies and the old-school Southern families from the town’s logging day origins and her main character, Willa, bridges these worlds by owning a sporting goods store in the “new” part of town while being a descendant of the family who built the town mansion, The Blue Ridge Madam, only recently restored. Willa’s family lost their fortune and their good name in the youth of her grandmother, who became pregnant without being married and went from the privileged child growing up in the Blue Ridge Madam to the maid of her former friends. Willa, the class prankster in grade school, portrays herself as a screw-up who made good following the death of her father, and is haunted by regrets for her childish resentments of her family’s lack of wealth and for not fulfilling what she believed were her father’s goals for her.
Paxton is her former classmate and the daughter of the current leading family in Walls of the Water, but, like Willa, she has issues. She still lives with her parents, only recently finding enough independence to move to the pool house, and is in love with a man she is certain is gay. Paxton has overseen the restoration of the Blue Ridge Madam as a bed and breakfast in her role as the president of the Women’s Society Club, founded by her grandmother and Willa’s the year that Willa’s family lost the Madam. Both grandmothers now reside in a senior care facility, with Paxton’s grandmother retreating into bitterness and Willa’s into dementia. Paxton is a perfectionist who is haunted by her own imperfection, starting with her body, about which her mother constantly reminds her.
Paxton’s handsome twin, Colin, is home to complete the landscape restoration for the Madam and a chance encounter with Willa at the site begins a romance that, together with Paxton’s love for her fashionista-friend, Sebastian, forms the subplot of the novel. The major plot line is revealed when the removal of an old peach tree on the property unearths a skeleton and some artifacts that lead Paxton and Willa on a quest for answers as to why their grandmothers founded the society the year Willa’s family left the Madam and why they allowed themselves to grow so far apart in the intervening years.
The novel is a little too rosy: women come to each other’s aid as a natural instinct and men who once identified as gay do not stay so, but Allen creates two memorable characters and a memorable setting for her tale of the way history is always influencing the present, and that’s an easy sell for me.