Adams, Alice 1926–1999

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Adams, Alice 1926–1999

(Alice Boyd Adams)

PERSONAL: Born August 14, 1926, in Fredericksburg, VA; died May 27, 1999, in San Francisco, CA; daughter of Nicholson Barney (a professor) and Agatha Erskine (a writer; maiden name, Boyd); married Mark Li-nenthal, Jr. (a professor), 1946 (divorced, 1958); children: Peter. Education: Radcliffe College, B.A., 1946.

CAREER: Writer. Has held various office jobs, including secretary, clerk, and bookkeeper. Instructor at the University of California—Davis, 1980, University of California—Berkeley, and Stanford University.

AWARDS, HONORS: O. Henry Awards, Doubleday, 1971–82 and 1984–96, for short stories; National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, 1975, for Families and Survivors; National Endowment for the Arts fiction grant, 1976; Best American Short Stories Awards, 1976, 1992, 1996; Guggenheim fellowship, 1978; O. Henry Special Award for Continuing Achievement, 1982; Academy and Institute Award in Literature, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1992.


Careless Love, New American Library (New York, NY), 1966, published as The Fall of Daisy Duke, Constable (London, England), 1967.

Families and Survivors (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1975.

Listening to Billie (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1978.

Beautiful Girl (short stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 1979.

Rich Rewards (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.

To See You Again (short stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 1982.

Molly's Dog (short stories), Evert (Concord, NH), 1983.

Superior Women (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.

Return Trips (short stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 1985.

Roses, Rhododendron: Two Flowers, Two Friends (non-fiction), Redpath Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1987.

Second Chances (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.

After You've Gone (short stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.

Mexico: Some Travels and Some Travelers There, introduction by Jan Morris, Prentice-Hall (New York, NY), 1990.

Caroline's Daughters (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.

Almost Perfect (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.

A Southern Exposure (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.

Medicine Men, Knopf (New York, NY), 1997.

The Last Lovely City (short stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.

After the War (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.

The Stories of Alice Adams, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.

Contributor of short stories to anthologies, including Best American Short Stories, 1976, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, 1971–82 and 1984–88. Contributor to periodicals, including New Yorker, Atlantic, Shenandoah, Crosscurrents, Grand Street, Mademoiselle, Virginia Quarterly Review, New York Times Book Review, Vogue, Redbook, McCall's, and Paris Review.

SIDELIGHTS: In many of her short stories and novels, Alice Adams wrote about women struggling to find their place in the world. Adams challenged her female characters, whether they lived alone or with a man, to establish meaningful lives and to work creatively both with life's blessings and its disappointments. Robert Phillips wrote in Commonweal: "The usual Adams character does not give in to his or her fate, but attempts to shape it, however misguidedly…. Women become aware not only of missed opportunities, but also of life's endless possibilities." While men occupy important positions in the female characters' lives, Adams's books tended to focus on the women's own struggles with identity. "The conflict—not the outward conflict between men and women, but the private and inward conflict of individual women—runs through all Adams's work," noted Stephen Goodwin in the Washington Post Book World. "Her women value men, but prize their own independence." Adams's women generally find true contentment in work and the freedom to make their own choices. According to William L. Stull in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, "each of her novels concerns a woman's search for satisfying work as a means to economic, artistic, and finally political independence." Contemporary Southern Writers essayist Annette Petrusso pointed out that Adams's "repeated exploration of personal change can relate to a larger social context—the post World War II era when more women pursued self-realization, for example, and more casual discussion of personal sexual experiences."

Adams's first novel, Careless Love, about a woman seeking a man who is more exciting than either her husband or her extramarital lover, "has a more sentimental tone" than the author's subsequent works, according to Petrusso. Stull, however, felt Adams intended the book as a work of satire rather than sentiment, but he noted that in several of Adams's writings, it was "hard to determine whether her overall attitude toward her characters is sympathetic or satirical." To him, Adams is at her best when she "wields a subtle irony tempered by empathy," something that he thinks happened most often in her short stories but occurred in her novels as well. As Petrusso remarked, "While Adams is usually compassionate in her portrayal of her female characters, she can also explore the ironies in their lives."

After Careless Love, Adams firmly established herself as a novelist with Families and Survivors and Listening to Billie. The first follows the ups and downs of two sisters during three decades of their lives. The second details a character buffeted by the suicides of her husband and her father and her struggle to deal with their deaths. It was in these novels, noted Sheila Weller in Ms. magazine, that Adams first revealed herself as "a wonderfully old-fashioned writer." She revealed, continued Weller, the qualities that underlie her fiction: "the Dickensian coincidence, the solemn omniscience, the sense of lives destined to intertwine." In addition to laying the foundation for her fiction, Adams also honed a style to serve her thematic concerns in these early novels. "In a prose style that was somehow both grave (even ominous) and unlabored almost to the point of being dashed off," observed Weller, "she showed how time burnishes character, how we come to accrue what we refer to as the 'lessons' of life." Adams succeeded, in Weller's words, in creating a "powerful wistfulness." For Petrusso, these two books "define [Adams's] maturity as a novelist."

In Rich Rewards, Adams focuses on a middle-aged woman who spent her life in a series of disappointing and often addictive relationships with men. At the novel's beginning, the heroine, Daphne, having recently broken off a relationship with an abusive lover, intends to immerse herself in her work as an interior decorator. She becomes embroiled in a friend's troubled marriage and eventually finds herself reunited with a lover from her youth. According to Larry T. Blades in Critique, "Rich Rewards chronicles the maturation of Daphne from a woman who devotes her life to punishing and humiliating sexual encounters into a woman who can establish a productive love relationship because she has first learned to respect herself." In the New York Times Book Review, Anne Tyler called it "a marvelously readable book. It's mysterious in the best sense—not a setup, artificial mystery but a real one, in which we wonder along with the heroine just what all the chaotic events are leading up to." Chicago Tribune Books contributor Lynne Sharon Schwartz called Rich Rewards "a stringent story elegantly told, and enhanced by a keen moral judgment…. As in her earlier novels,… Adams is concerned with the shards of broken families and with the quickly severed ties that spring up in place of families. But in Rich Rewards the harshness latent in such tenuous relations is more overt than before…. It takes a sort of magician to render hope from the brew of pain, muddle, and anomie that Alice Adams has managed charmingly to concoct. Once again she brings it off with panache."

Superior Women concerns the relationship among four young women during their years at Radcliffe and afterwards. The novel has frequently been compared to Mary McCarthy's The Group, which described the lives of eight women who attended Vassar in the 1930s. As in The Group, Superior Women follows its characters through graduation and into the outside world, showing how political and social events affected their lives. This technique met with some criticism. "The effects of viewing a whole age through gauze in this fashion is pretty deadening," claimed Michael Wood in the London Review of Books. Jonathan Yardley, a Washington Post Book World contributor, stated: "What we … have is a shopping list of public events, causes and fads. As the women leave Radcliffe and enter the world, Adams dutifully trots them through everything from civil rights to Watergate." And yet other critics found Adams's usual style, allied with a swifter pace, produced a highly satisfactory work. John Updike wrote in the New Yorker, "The novel … reads easily, even breathlessly; one looks forward, in the chain of coincidences, to the next encounter, knowing that this author always comes to the point from an unexpected angle, without fuss." And Barbara Koenig Quart remarked in Ms. that Adams's talent holds the reader through any weak points: "Not at all systematically, to be sure, and with fairly thin references to the extraordinary events of those turbulent decades, still, Adams holds us firmly with a lively narrative pace. She creates an almost gossipy interest in what happens to her characters; and she can't write a bad sentence, though hers is the kind of fine unobtrusive style that you notice only if you're looking for it." Some reviewers were uncertain whether Superior Women was "a serious, satiric novel," "lighter, spicier fare," or "somehow both at once," related Stull, who maintained that Adams's "intention seems deeply divided, a have-your-romance-and-mock-it-too attitude."

Adams's novel Second Chances portrays the lives of men and women who face the onset of their sixties and the stigma of "old age." Like Adams's other characters, they worry about relationships and suffer losses, but in this book a marriage dissolving through death forces them to evaluate their own lives. Adams once told Mervyn Rothstein in an interview for the New York Times: "The novel grew out of the fact I was getting toward being sixty myself. It struck me that sixty is not middle-age. I do not know a lot of people who are 120…. I began looking at people who are ten to fifteen years older. The book is for me a kind of exploration." Second Chances also gave Adams a chance to speak truthfully about aging. In an interview with Kim Heron for the New York Times Book Review, she once noted, "I have the perception that people talk about old age in two ways. One is to focus on the horrors of it, not that they should be underestimated, and the other is to romanticize it."

The book starts with a group of long-term friends, all of them examining changes in their relationships. The scene soon changes to memory, and the reader is filled in on the characters' sometimes highly intricate lives. Barbara Williamson related in the Washington Post Book World that "the backward and forward motion of time in the novel happily captures the way old people tell wistful, probably falsified tales of when they were young and beautiful. And the stories of their youth are the liveliest parts of the novel." But Williamson also found that the characters' very gracefulness inhibited Adams's attempts to portray old age truthfully: "The picture presented in this novel seems too kind, too pretty. Old age, we suspect, is not a gentle stroll on the beach at twilight with kind and caring friends. Where, we ask, is the 'rage against the dying of the light'?" But Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Joanna Barnes praised the depiction of the pain that exists in all relationships, whether among the young or the old. Barnes wrote: "In a larger sense, it is the nature of friendship under Adams's delicate examination here. She recreates, too, the haunting undertone of the loneliness present in all human intercourse, that separateness which, despite the presence of kindly acquaintances and lovers, can never be bridged nor breached."

In Almost Perfect, Adams created "an oddly affecting morality tale that tastes like good medicine with no more than the requisite spoonful of darkly humorous sugar," in the words of World Literature Today contributor B.A. St. Andrews. In her tale, the author places familiar characters and issues in a familiar setting; as Anita Shreve wrote in the Washington Post Book World, "Once again we are on familiar Adams territory: atop the hills of San Francisco, inside the well-appointed interiors of the successful and near-successful, and enmeshed in a constellation of interconnecting and constantly observed relationships." The central relationship here is that of Stella Blake, a journalist, and Richard Fallon, a commercial artist. At first Richard seems almost perfect, as does Stella's relationship with him. Soon, however, Stella's condition in life and work improves, while Richard's gets worse. Their relationship soon suffers strains and other relationships around them grow more complicated. Through these relationships, observed Shreve, "Adams explores the consequences of hate, love and just plain bitchiness in a universe in which everyone seems to be connected to everyone else." Moreover, Lawrence Thornton noted in the New York Times Book Review, "Ms. Adams's chronicle of Richard's descent into psychotic depression is minutely recorded. And it is the double trajectory—Stella's rise to success and self-esteem against Richard's self-destruction—that gives the novel its compelling signature."

Reviewers of Almost Perfect found much to praise in its author's use of character and setting. "A lot goes on in the two-year span of the novel," wrote Victoria Jenkins in Chicago's Tribune Books, "and it's all marvelously well told—full of revealing detail, smart dialogue and astute observation. Adams's characters are drawn with such precision and complexity that it's easy to imagine forgetting that they are characters in fiction and to mistakenly remember them as real people." Jenkins also lauded Adams's style. "Almost Perfect has a breathless, gossipy tone. The story is told in the present tense from the points of view of many different characters with many parenthetical asides. We're drawn in as though we're part of the circle of friends, confided in and gossiped to." And as Thornton wrote, "Adams explores the tension of [Stella and Richard's] deteriorating relationship with something approaching the novelist's equivalent of perfect pitch. She paces the story by means of highly concentrated episodes and uses the present tense effectively to increase the sense of urgency."

In Caroline's Daughters, the title character and her third husband return to San Francisco from a long stay in Europe. Upon her arrival home, Caroline finds each of her five daughters in some degree of crisis. Caroline's daughters range in age from twenty-five to forty-one. Caroline's first husband died in World War II, leaving her to take care of their daughter, Sage, by herself. The three middle daughters were fathered by her second husband, a doctor. Liza is married with children and hopes to write a book. Fiona is a restaurateur and Jill a lawyer and high-class call girl. The youngest girl's father is Caroline's current husband. Named Portia, she is struggling to find her place.

Adams wove together the lives of this mother and her daughters and suggests that the daughters need their mother more than she needs them. As Christopher Lehmann-Haupt commented in the New York Times, "What Ms. Adams's witty scenes add up to is any number of things: a portrait of San Francisco, a profile of the 1980's, a still life of women after liberation." In fact, in the opinion of Women's Review of Books contributor Barbara Rich, "One of the delights of the book is the way in which it illuminates the superficial sheen of the Reagan years, and how it reflects back upon the principals' lives." Even so, noted Hilma Wolitzer in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "Despite its contemporary style, and its current setting and concerns, Caroline's Daughters is a roomy and tantalizing old-fashioned read."

Ellen Pall believed that this book has much to offer its readers. "Caroline's Daughters is crammed with plot," she wrote. "Careers rise and fall, affairs begin and end, people fall in and out of love and fortunes are won and lost as the lives of the sisters intertwine in gratifyingly shocking ways." And, added Wolitzer, "There is enough intrigue here to keep things animated and suspenseful, and enough sensual detail—more often related to food and clothing than to sex—to create a lush atmosphere." Dispelling the fear that a novel with so many characters and so much happening would become far too complex for the reader, Rich countered, "If the cast of characters and their convoluted scripts sound overwhelming, they may well have been in the hands of a less skillful writer. Alice Adams knows exactly where she is going, and why. She delivers a fluid, meaty, sexy and rewarding novel." Pall's praise for Adams's craftsmanship was more tempered. "Fluent though the prose is, it is otherwise unremarkable," she wrote, "and a few of the characters seem to have sprung more from the pages of glossy magazines than the depths of the author's imagination or experience. And the very end of the novel feels artificial and arbitrary. Nevertheless," she believed, "this is an immensely satisfying book."

In A Southern Exposure, Adams departed from San Francisco and moved to the sandhills of North Carolina just prior to World War II, when the Depression still dominated American life. A New England couple, Harry and Cynthia Baird, leave their home for a new life in the South and settle in a small community peopled by a famous poet, his depressed wife, her psychiatrist, and a wealthy gossip, among others. In following the town's many social encounters, Adams crafted a portrait of people and place. Lee Smith, writing in the New York Times Book Review, noted that "sex and race" are "two of the major if understated themes in this novel." A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that the novel's "melodramas feel witty, given Adam's intelligent characterization, and are at equal pitch with her descriptions of Pinehill's flush, distracting beauty." Booklist contributor Nancy Pearl added, "Adams's perfect pitch for dialogue has never been put to better use." Smith concluded, A Southern Exposure "is rich and sweet, like candy; you read away feeling guilty because you're enjoying it so much, and then it's over."

Adams returned to San Francisco for Medicine Men, which recounted the struggles of recently widowed Molly Bonner and her best friend, Felicia Flood. Molly is dating Dr. Dave Jacobs and is diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor. Jacobs guides Molly through her treatment, but brings to their relationship his professional tendency to control his patients and dismiss their fears. Felicia is the unfortunate paramour of the self-aggrandizing, misogynistic Dr. Raleigh Sanders. The tale is an indictment of the male-dominated medical establishment, an affirmation of the common sense and strength of friendship between women, and an absorbing yarn about complicated personal lives in a high-powered professional medical setting. For Deborah Mason, writing in the New York Times Book Review, Adams's portrayal of a hopelessly insensitive and inept medical establishment was "overkill." On the other hand, a Booklist contributor noted that "this 'medical' novel transcends any of the genre's stock characters and hackneyed situations to become a trenchant psychological exploration of physical and emotional pain and recovery." And Ellen Howards declared in Boston Book Review that "medicine aside, this is an entirely enjoyable novel to read just for the sake of Adams's interwoven story lines and sharp, natural wit."

Beautiful Girl was Adams's first published collection of short stories. Although half of the stories had won the O. Henry Prize, the tales did not fully satisfy New York Times Book Review critic Katha Pollitt. While praising Adams's gifts as a storyteller, Pollitt lamented the ubiquitous presence of one "recognizable type" of heroine in the collection: "I kept waiting for Miss Adams to flash an ironic smile toward these supremely sheltered, idle, unexamined people…. She never does." Hudson Review contributor Dean Flowers believed that in Beautiful Girl, Adams portrays difficult problems with too much ease: "At their best these stories explore complex relationships in a quick, deceptively offhand manner. They tend to begin with a tense problem (a wife dying, a divorce impending, a moment of wrath, an anxious move to a new place) and unravel gradually, without much climax except a muted sense of recovered balance and diminished expectation…. One feels neither gladness nor sorrow in such conclusions, but rather an implicit appeal of stylish melancholy." Still, the intensity of her characters' feelings can belie the author's seemingly neat appraisals of their lives. Susan Schindehette commented in the Saturday Review of Return Trips: "It is Adams's gift to reveal the tremendous inner workings beneath the apparent tranquility and make characters come to life in her spare, elegant style."

Adams moved to California in the 1950s, and the state and its residents figure prominently in her work. To See You Again is a "collection of nineteen short stories [that] may surprise readers who have been led to think that all fictional California women are angst-ridden, sex-crazed or mellowed-out," wrote Paul Gray in Time. Some reviewers took issue with the book's even tone. While Benjamin DeMott admired the irony and understatement in the collection, he noted in the New York Times Book Review: "Life in this book is indeed lived … in easygoing obedience to the key emotional imperative of the age (Change Your Life). None of Miss Adams's people ever tears a passion to tatters…. But these stories do suffer from a lack of tonal variety." Mary Morris, in a Tribune Books article, stated that Adams "has spared us the fights, she has spared us the asking of the unaskable, the struggle to love. And in the end she has also spared us what we want most, the drama." Morris claimed "the protagonists' inability to achieve involvement" frustrated the reader. Adams's characters in To See You Again "don't reach out, they don't fight back. What they do is leave, remember or fantasize." But the strength of the book, Linda Pastan wrote in American Book Review, lies in "the cumulative effect" that makes "the reader feel as though he knows the San Francisco of Alice Adams in the special way one knows a place inhabited by friends."

Adams earned ample praise with her third collection of stories, Return Trips, which "shows a master writer at the height of her powers," says Stull. He related: "The title is apt in every way, from the dedication [to Adams's son, Peter Adams Linenthal] to the travel motifs that link these fifteen accounts of women recalling or revisiting people and places that shaped their lives." All the stories in the collection depict women struggling along on a physical or spiritual journey. According to Isabel Raphael in the London Times: "To make a return trip, [Adams] seems to be saying, you must leave where you are, and there is no guarantee that things will be the same when you come back, or that you yourself will be unaffected by the journey. But with a solid experience of love in your life on which to base a sense of identity, you will not lose your way." And Elaine Kendall concluded in the Los Angeles Times that in Return Trips, "unburdened by complex rigging, her imagination sails swiftly and gracefully over a sea of contemporary emotional experience, sounding unexpected depths."

Adams's next collection of short stories appeared in 1989 as After You've Gone. As Ron Carlson explained in the New York Times Book Review, "The fourteen short romances in Alice Adams's new collection are—with two exceptions—about women. These women are professionals … who live in the upscale world of gracious houses in cities from California to Maryland." The stories are also about the aftermath of lost relationships. Catherine Petroski detailed the themes of these stories in Tribune Books, "Several stories of uneasy coexistence … deal pointedly with the difficulties people have in sustaining relationships and why, given the difficulties, they persist in them." She added, "The other major strain running through the collection is the theme of old friendships." Carlson expressed disappointment with these works. "Reading the stories becomes like reading about people in stories and not—as in the best realistic fiction—about people we know." Yet, in Petroski's opinion, "Adams's new collection of short stories, her fourth, is the work of a writer at the height of her powers—lucid, confident, refined, adept, provocative, perspicacious, startling and satisfying."

Another book of short stories, The Last Lovely City, came out in 1999. The world of this collection, according to New York Times Book Review contributor Susan Bolton, was "an essentially female place" that was "both densely populated and lonely," given the troubled relationships Adams's characters have had with men in these tales of "love lost and found and usually lost again." A couple on the brink of divorce discuss a reconciliation, which may be ill-advised; a widowed doctor changes his life drastically after he realizes that his young woman friend does not reciprocate his desire. Bolton praised Adams's portrayals of these people: "Her characters are as specifically executed as their names; their inner voices speak as loudly as their real ones." These characters are not easy to love, Bolton averred, but added, "perhaps that is Adams's point: when we search for love, we are not always lovable."

In her final novel, After the War, published a year after her death, Adams revisited the characters she introduced in A Southern Exposure. The place is Pinehill, North Carolina, the year is 1944, and World War II is raging. Readers are once again caught up in the lives of Cynthia and Harry Baird and their neighbors, which include a New York Jewish couple, active members of the Communist Party. To the themes of racism and sexual infidelity are added the threats of communism and military combat. Beth E. Andersen, reviewing After the War for Library Journal, wrote: "Adams is a genius at affectionately tweaking the stereotypes of a Southern gentility struggling mightily to understand the ways of the world." A Publishers Weekly critic similarly praised the novelist's "deep acquaintance with her milieu" and with period details that allow "a smooth reference to the atomic bomb and the musical Oklahoma in the same sentence."

In 2002 Knopf reprised Adams's prolific career—six story collections and eleven novels—by republishing fifty-three of her tales in The Stories of Alice Adams. About this compilation, and her literary achievement, a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote: "Taken together, these stories betray the changing mores of the past half-century; taken in sequence, they trace the changes in the American short story over the past forty years, some of those changes wrought by Adams herself." The variety of Adams's richly portrayed female protagonists is here in abundance: mothers and daughters, sisters and best friends, wives and lovers, independent women embroiled in messy relationships. Andersen, reviewing the collection in Library Journal, noted Adams's gift for creating "the familiar landscapes of interior life with pitch-perfect diction," adding that, "with her pen Adams indeed became the master of the encapsulated moment."



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