Sarah Addison Allen's version of the South is a lovely place -- bright sunshine, fruit, flowers and the ghosts of the past (sometimes literally).
So you can guess what her fourth novel, "The Peach Keeper," is absolutely soaked with. It's a lush, summery little novel that spins together buried secrets, ghosts, magical realism, romance, and a decades-old mystery. But at heart, it's the story of two young women's struggle to find their place in the world.
The Blue Ridge Madam -- a mansion in the North Carolina town of Walls of Water -- once belonged to Willa Jackson's family, but they lost it when her grandmother was still a young girl. All her life, she has been haunted by this. Now the derelict mansion is being transformed into a high-class country inn by Willa's old classmate, Paxton. Paxton is slowly crumbling under the weight of tradition and family expectations -- as well as her love for her possibly-gay friend Sebastien.
Then Willa and Paxton's brother Colin find a skull buried near the house -- and it turns out to be Tucker Devlin, a devilishly charming salesman who had magical powers and claimed to have peach juice in his veins. Willa begins to unwind the past to find out what happened to Tucker, and discovers some shocking connections to her family past...
When you summarize it, "The Peach Keeper" sounds like a magical-realism murder mystery, or maybe a lightweight ghost story. However, it's not really either -- there ARE ghosts, and there IS a mystery of sorts. But Allen is much more interested in the closeted skeletons of Walls of Water, and in the troubled young woman who need to find their own place in the world.
Her prose is sweet, sunny and full of luscious sensual moments -- smells, delicious food, beautiful clothes, and a sort of misty Southern prettiness. Even in the more plotless moments, Allen's prose draws you into her little world. But she also weaves some tense moments into it, such as when Willa finds a drunk Paxton being harassed by a couple of jerks.
The only problem is that Allen doesn't explore the magical realism angle enough. The "magical, stormy nature" of Tucker and the things he could do -- as well as the ghosts -- are touched on but never a major part of the story.
But her characterizations are uniformly brilliant. Willa and Paxton are both young women who are lost -- one has always felt like an outcast from her own life, while the other desperately wants to escape the "perfect" life she has always led. Romance helps them find their places, with the elegant misfit Sebastien and the charming wanderer Colin.
"The Peach Keeper" is a lot like a peach itself -- velvety, sweet, soft and pleasing to the senses. A truly enchanting little novel.