The main plot follows the lives of three women—lonely and repressed Constance MacKenzie; her illegitimate daughter Allison; and her employee Selena Cross, a girl from across the tracks, or "from the shacks." The novel describes how they come to terms with their identity as women and sexual beings in a small New England town. Hypocrisy, social inequities and class privilege are recurring themes in a tale that includes incest, abortion, adultery, lust and murder. The term "Peyton Place" became a generic label for any community whose inhabitants have sordid secrets.

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