Sarah Addison Allen's The Peach Keeper begins as Paxton Osgood mails out invitations from a social club comprised of Walls of Water's richest women. However, a rainstorm develops, breaking a record set in 1936, and the richly made invitations are delayed and misdelivered. The theme of "magic" is introduced: when the letters finally find their rightful recipients, they disappear and reappear again—in strange places like bird nests. Every unusual thing that occurs because of those invitations (including an epidemic of infected paper cuts) superstitiously points to coming change.
Willa Jackson gets her invitation and lets it sit: she is not interested in the gala being presented by the Women's Society Club. However, unbeknownst to her, strange incidents in town and a seventy-five year-old mystery will conspire against her wish to remain on the periphery of this and related events.
Rachel Edney, who works the coffee bar at Willa's organic sportswear store, tries to understand Willa's adamant refusal to become involved. Aware of peculiar activities talking place (such as the shop's bell ringing when no one has opened the door), Rachel defies these mysterious occurrences, saying "Superstitions are man's way of trying to control things he has no control over."
If nothing else is true, no one will be able to control the things beginning to take place. The story's mood develops around these quirky events—which take place randomly not only with Willa but with others in town.
Willa grew up in Walls of Water but feels completely out of place with her peers. She has no desire to associate with them but keeps to herself. She maintains a healthy distance from Paxton Osgood and the other wealthy "townies."
The upcoming gala, and the mystery at the heart of the novel, center on the Blue Ridge Madam—a beautiful mansion (said to be haunted) that once belonged to Willa's family. Built late in the 1800s by Willa's great-great grandfather, the family lost it when the logging business (on which the family's fortune had been built) died out. The Madam long ago began to fall to ruin, until the Osgood family bought the old house and began to refurbish it.
Soon to be opened to the public as a bed-and-breakfast, the Women's Society Club, founded in 1936, has decided to hold a gala to celebrate the estate's "renaissance" and the club's good deeds, and the invitations announce the lavish party to take place there. (It should be noted that the motif of 1936 is repeated several times throughout the story with startling significance.)
As much as Willa tries to disassociate herself from the mainstream of Walls of Water's society, she is inexplicably—and daily—drawn out of town and up the steep drive to sit on her car's hood and gaze at the progress of the renovations. She loves the Madam.
It is in just such a situation, after work one evening as the gala draws ever nearer, that the Jacksons and Osgoods meet again. Willa (to her mortification) is "caught" staring up at the mansion by Colin Osgood, Paxton's twin brother, as well as the landscape professional overseeing the property's reconstruction. Magic steps in again as Willa's invitation, which she has been studying, is mysteriously lifted up on a sudden gust of wind to land hard against Colin's shirt:
The invitation hit him flat against his chest and flapped there like a fish out of water....This was a sign, she thought. Though of what, she had no idea.
This magical moment is the first of many that will bring Willa and Colin together as the story progresses.
While Willa, having very little money, has tried to make something of her life in Walls of Water, ironically wealthy Paxton Osgood, the queen of lists and organization—who would seem to have everything—is trying to do the same thing: she is fighting to pull together enough courage to move out of her childhood home, where she still lives with her parents. Having turned thirty, she wants to live in her own place, much to her mother's displeasure. At this point in her life, Paxton had hoped to have a family and children. The lack of success in achieving her dream is all the more obvious to her as she attends the Women's Society Club meeting that same night, seeing her friends and their kids.
The theme of "truth coming to light" is introduced when (magically) all the women begin openly to share their deepest secrets, unable to stop themselves. For example, one admits to continually stealing lipsticks at the store; another confirms that she has had "a boob job." It is only the panicked look in the women's eyes that convinces Paxton that they are not kidding around.
Paxton, the president of the club, struggles to bring everyone to order. She remembers that her grandmother, Agatha Osgood, used to say, "When you learn someone else's secret, your own secrets aren't safe. Dig up one, release them all."
Paxton's closest friend is the town's dentist, Sebastian Rogers. Paxton's untold secret—which she feels a horrible need to blurt out during the meeting (but successfully fights)—is that she is in love with Sebastian.
Meanwhile, Colin shows up at Willa's house to return her invitation. The reader learns that Willa and Colin have an unacknowledged history. Willa was secretly a prankster in school, the "Walls of Water High School Joker." Inadvertently, Colin was "credited" for each prank—until Willa was arrested for pulling the fire alarm. As the police escorted her out of the building at the end of her senior year, while a banner gave credit for the prank to the Joker, the student body realized that the tricks had actually been pulled off (all along) by Willa Jackson.
Colin shares his own secret with Willa that night: "You were the bravest person I knew." To Willa, Colin admits that she was his inspiration to leave town and take a chance at making a success of himself out in the world. Willa does not like being someone's inspiration.
In the midst of all of this, there are only two women alive from the original Women's Society Club (something else that joins Willa and Paxton): Georgie Jackson (Willa's grandmother) and Agatha Osgood (Paxton's grandmother). Georgie was not just a member of the club: she was one of the women who helped organize it.
Paxton wants to honor both women at the gala, although they now live in the same nursing home. Georgie does not leave the home. She suffers from dementia and does not even recognize her granddaughter Willa on her weekly visits. When Willa mentions the gala during one of Georgie's fleeting moments of clarity, she gazes at Willa and says, "Peaches." Willa thinks her grandmother is asking to have peaches to eat. The actual significance of this word will only become apparent much later in the novel.
While Willa visits her grandmother, Paxton pays a call to her grandmother, Nana (Agatha) Osgood. Although almost completely blind, Agatha's mind is still very sharp. She is a troublesome patient with a fiery personality. Paxton is unaware that Agatha has very negative feelings about the Blue Ridge Madam, although it is not immediately clear why. The theme of "secrecy" is introduced here—the absence of truth. Agatha reflects on all she has done to make the Madam a place of which no one would want any part:
All those years of carefully constructing the rumors of ghosts, of making every child, and most adults, afraid of the Madam, of watching it crumble, year after year, waiting for the time when it would finally collapse and it and everything that happened there would disappear, had been for naught.
When Paxton shares the news about the renovation of the Madam and the gala, Agatha does all she can to dissuade her granddaughter; she argues, becomes mean-spirited, and is nastier than usual, but Paxton is undaunted—she refuses to change her plans. Here the reader learns that the Women's Society Club originally was not a social club at all but a way to "protect one another because no one else would." Agatha Osgood is certain that everything is moving in concert with what occurred at the Madam so many years ago—toward (it would seem) exposure. She notes, "Secrets never stay buried, no matter how hard you try."
Agatha and Georgie also have a past together, but it started before there was a social club. Agatha recalls that one time Georgie needed Agatha desperately, but Agatha failed her during a "time that had changed everything." Now Agatha is dedicated fiercely to protecting Georgie in any way she can. As Agatha makes her way slowly to Georgie's room at the home, she suddenly has a poignant feeling of loss of friends and family. It touches her deeply. When she speaks to...
(The entire section is 3606 words.)
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