My grandma used to watch the delightfully sordid and epically long-running soap opera As the World Turns religiously, every weekday at 1:00 pm on channel 12. Occasionally, if school was out for some reason, I would watch it with her. After she passed away, I decided to keep the tradition going and ended up getting totally sucked into the action. Even in college, I would tape each hour-long episode on my VCR and watch them when I got home from class. If I had a busy week, I'd binge-watch all five episodes on Saturday.
I remember becoming so absorbed by one particular storyline in which a new woman in town stole the husband of one of the main characters, I began to actually hate the actress playing the husband-stealer as if she were a real person who had wronged me personally. Every time Olivia perpetrated some new treachery, my blood boiled with rage at the unfairness of it all. When was she going to get hers?! Why couldn't Jack see what a conniving, manipulative witch he was courting? I'm pretty sure that if I had ever encountered that actress on the street, I would have spat in her face.
Clearly, I had let the story become a little too real. Escapism has its place, but I had sailed past that stop and headed straight for Crazy Town. Fortunately, full-time teaching severely curtailed my soap opera watching time, and a few years later, ATWT went off the air. Still, sometimes I find myself caught up in a book the same way, viscerally hating the villainous characters and wishing grievous harm upon them. At least in the case of the books, I don't have the slight but worrisome risk of happening upon and attacking a character in real life. (I'm pretty sure that Olivia chick could have taken me, anyway. She was a hardcore, vicious skank!)
This book is a soap opera on paper, and it's an absolute delight. Originally published in 1956 and set in the late '30s to mid '40s, it shows its age in spots, but in most ways very little has changed in the intervening years. People are still gossipy and judgmental, and small towns are still simultaneously cozy and isolating. The book is named for the small town in New England in which it is set; Peyton Place is fictional, but the conflicts that arise are quite realistic.
A fairly large cast is required, since the book centers around the town as a whole. There's Allison Mackenzie, an immature teenage girl who isn't ready to grow up. There's her mother, Constance, who is hiding a huge secret from Allison and everyone else in town. There's Allison's friend Selena Cross, a shack-dweller who is beautiful and smart despite the abuse of her drunken stepfather. There's Norman Page, a delicate boy who is overly dependent on his mother and a little too fond of the enemas she forces on him. (Right?!?!) There's Leslie Harrington, who owns the mill and therefore controls nearly everything that happens in town, except of course his sociopathic, spoiled son Rodney.
There are terrible conflicts and wretched occurrences (a girl loses an arm in a carnival accident!), but there are also some wonderful comic scenes, particularly one involving a drunken man who wanders into the Pentecostal church and is thought by the naïve parishioners to be speaking in tongues.
The wikipedia page for the author, Grace Metalious, is also interesting reading if you have the time and inclination. She was apparently not too worried about ruffling feathers—she used a real person's first and last name in the book, and he sued her for libel. Just one example.
Bottom line: Read this book, and be glad you didn't grow up in Peyton Place.