Redemptive tales are always good for the soul.
There’s something immensely satisfying and endlessly restorative reading about people who have reached the very end of themselves, usually in messily complicated, destructive ways, and who need to find a way back to who they really are or want to be.
Sometimes, however, or really, all too often, the journey back from rock bottom cab feel a little too easy, a little wand-waving miraculous, which, while it feels instantaneously sugar-rush good in the short-term, robs the story of any real humanity and emotional impact, undercutting the whole point of the story in the first place.
That’s certainly not the case with Spring Clean for the Peach Queen by Sasha Wasley (A Caravan Like a Canary) which works hard to earn its protagonist her return back to an authentic worthwhile life and in so doing, delivers the kind of payoff that feels gloriously well-earned.
And when we say works hard, we mean it; aspiring, on-the-cusp-of-greatness actor Lottie Bentz, prodigal child of the peach growing township of Bonnievale, returns home after scandal engulfs her, determined to forge a life free of artifice, shallow glamour and a tendency to favour the glittery ephemeral over the lastingly meaningful.
The last Peach Queen before peach spot wreaked havoc on the central industry of her heavily agricultural hometown, Lottie comes back to a furious feminist mother who can’t believe her daughter, raised to be better, was played so badly by the patriarchy, a town who doesn’t know what to make of its fallen daughter, and a local farming family, the Brookers, who take her in when no one else, including her own mother, will.
“There was something strangely beautiful about the way Mrs Brooker conducted her spare-room declutter. She looked at each object with wonder and respect, as though it was a precious artefact – like she’d found a trove of stolen treasure. I felt slightly ashamed of the flippant way I’d sorted through my childhood bedroom. If the decluttering process were acting, Mrs Brooker was a Lady Macbeth soliloquy and I was a stain-remover commercial.” (P. 84)
Lottie is determined to out all the tasteful nudes and scandalous death adjacent furor behind her, and so she decides to Maria Kondo the hell out her life, getting ready of her acting career, her phone and her propensity to gild the lily in a bid for ever-increasing numbers of social media followers.
If that all sounds a bit scorched earth policy, it is, but it is driven by Lottie’s very strong sense that whatever she wanted from life as an actor hasn’t materialised and that all she’s got for all her aspirational graft is infamy of the kind no one wants sticking to them.
Out on the Brookers’ farm, where she is taken in by her mother’s warmly non-judgmental and loving bestie, Caroline, a woman of 72 who is beginning to lose track of things in a way that worries those around her like her acid-tongued, prim-and-proper sister-in-law Pris and her glum but handsome son Angus, an old childhood friend of Lottie’s, is the hope that maybe things can turn around.
But not without a substantial amount of reinvention which Lottie takes to with desperate gusto, vowing and declaring to herself, and anyone who asks, that her days of make-up and lies are over, and that what she wants is a thoughtfully selfish and meaningful life, one that gives rather than takes and which, at the end of the day, leaves you feeling like you’ve done something worthwhile.
So, she finds meaning in helping Caroline sort through a spare room of relics and memories, and while Angus initially treats her as an interloper worthy only of grunts and scorn, it becomes clear as the truth emerges on all kinds of fronts that there might be something there beyond a simply restoking of childhood friendship.
If this all sounds a little frothy and insubstantial, the narrative summary of any one of a thousand light-and-heartwarming redemptive novels, then it’s time to put all those preconceptions aside.
Spring Clean for the Peach Queen is far more than simply a tale of one person deciding that rock bottom is no place to live and that what’s required is a wholesale reshaping, and importantly, simplifying, of the whole landscape of her life,
Pleasingly, Wasley, who has a real knack for vibrant, fully realised characters and honest dialogue that feels like it might actually come out of someone’s mouth (and a gift for poetically earthy description), doesn’t take the easy route her; far from it, in fact, with Lottie facing a long and winding road to any kind of life restorative resolution.
While she bonds quickly with Caroline, and later with Angus, and his friends Toby and Jo, her life doesn’t instantly rebound with the mistakes of her past hanging over in ways that continue to exhaust and frustrate her, especially when people who should be capable of forgiveness and understanding choose instead to lean on gossip and salaciousness instead.
“‘Well done!’ I [Lottie] said. ‘And you barely needed me. I just gave you a little push in the right direction.’
‘Nah, I’m [Jo] with Mrs B – you’re the master. Just, with your declutter, don’t touch the good stuff, okay?’
‘You know, your personality declutter. Leave the good things alone. The bits like being kind, funny, generous and good at making people feel comfortable – I’ve never told anyone else some of that shit I said when you came over. But you don’t judge.'” (P. 379)
The good thing is that Lottie attracts enough unconditional love and care that she is able to deep dive into what really matters to her, in the process embracing the very real possibilities of re-invention that appear before her.
Yes, Spring Clean for the Peach Queen has a pleasing amount of hope and love of the romantic, familial and friendship kind to go around, and you do feel a special kind of joyous loveliness reading it, but it is also very real and true and doesn’t pretend that the very worst of times can be come the very best of times in the flick of a wrist.
That doesn’t happen in life and it doesn’t happen in this heart and hope-affirming novel that understands that people and families are fiendishly complex and that working our way through dark and terrible times, even when a light begins to shine stubbornly at the end of the tunnel, is never easy and can take everything we’ve got.
It’s that slice of gritty realism that makes this vigorously alive such a pleasure to read because while hope, unconditional love and moments of playful fun are bursting out like sun after a particularly destructive storm, you know that Lottie has earned every leas centimetre of happiness and satisfaction climbing out of the hellish pit that is her home at the start of the novel.
Vibrantly, joyously alive with the possibility life, friendships and family, found and flesh, anew, Spring Clean for the Peach Queen is one of those redemptive that feels as muscular and rawly honest as it is heartwarmingly hopeful, an all-enveloping hug of a novel that also feels like a good kick up the proverbial and which earns every last words of its upliftingly truthful ending (which is supremely clever and poetically imaginative all at once) by not playing to the easy crowd but taking the hard road, leaving Lottie, and us, all the better for it.