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Alther, Lisa 1944-

Alther, Lisa 1944-

PERSONAL:

Born July 23, 1944, in Kingsport, TN; daughter of John Shelton (a surgeon) and Alice Margaret Reed; married Richard Philip Alther (a painter), August 26, 1966; children: Sara Halsey. Education: Wellesley College, B.A., 1966.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Hinesburg, VT; New York, NY. Office—c/o Watkins-Loomis, Inc., 133 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Writer. Atheneum Publishers, New York, NY, secretary and editorial assistant, 1967; St. Michael's College, Winooski, VT, former fiction instructor; freelance writer, 1967—. Writer for Garden Way, Inc., Charlotte, VT, 1970-71. Member of board of directors of Planned Parenthood of Champlain Valley, 1972.

MEMBER:

PEN, National Writers' Union, Authors Guild, Authors League of America.

WRITINGS:

NOVELS

Kinflicks, Knopf (New York, NY), 1976, published with a new introduction by the author, Plume (New York, NY), 1996.

Original Sins, Knopf (New York, NY), 1981.

Other Women, Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.

Bedrock, Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.

Five Minutes in Heaven, Dutton (New York, NY), 1995.

OTHER

(Author of introduction) Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Women's Press, 1980.

Kinfolks: Falling off the Family Tree; The Search for My Melungeon Ancestors, Arcade Pub. (New York, NY), 2007.

Also contributor to Homewords, edited by Douglas Paschell and Alice Swanson. Contributor of articles and stories to national magazines, including Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Natural History, New Society, Yankee, Vermont Freeman, New Englander, New York Times Magazine, and New York Times Book Review. Alther's novels have been translated into French, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Danish, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Hungarian, Slovene, Greek, Turkish, and Spanish.

SIDELIGHTS:

American writer Lisa Alther is best known for her novels dealing with contemporary women and the issues involving them, both humorous and serious. These works include Kinflicks, Original Sins, Other Women, Bedrock, and Five Minutes in Heaven. As Alther noted on her home page, one of her "stated aims is to portray the human reality behind cultural stereotypes, particularly those regarding women." Alther's debut novel, Kinflicks, made publishing news in 1976 when, instead of a small press run, this first novel boasted an initial printing of 30,000 hardback copies; it quickly ascended to the best-seller lists and was widely and favorably reviewed. Some critics compared it to J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. This comparison stems largely from the similarity between the novels' protagonists as Ginny Babcock, in her search for a meaningful existence, emerges as a female Holden Caulfield. Like Salinger's character, Ginny is a survivor, and while the story of how adolescents survive is now a familiar one, Alther's graphic depiction of Ginny's Tennessee teens, her flight north, and her subsequent return south to her mother's deathbed rescues the novel from predictability. As a critic for the New Yorker explained: "A number of other excellent writers have covered various parts of the turf covered here," but "no other writer has yet synthesized this material as well as Miss Alther has. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that her cynical, clear-eyed, well-heeled, disaster-prone heroine, Ginny Babcock, can easily take her place alongside Holden Caulfield as a symbol of everything that is right and wrong about a generation." Furthermore, noted Valentine Cunningham in the New Statesman, "her account is often to be caught uproariously in the rye."

In her second novel, Original Sins, Alther covers much the same territory she did in her first book, only this time there are five protagonists. "Kinflicks followed a single heroine from her Tennessee upbringing through a series of wacky encounters up North with the countercultures of the '60s," Paul Gray explained in Time. "Original Sins quintuples its predecessor, offering five main characters, all Southerners, who try to grow up in a region and a country that are changing even faster than they are."

Alther chronicles the relocation of three of the five to the North while painting a broad social history of the sixties and seventies. Women's liberation, Vietnam, black power, civil rights, and the counterculture are among her subjects, and the portrait that emerges is unsatisfactory to some. Several critics charge that in her attempt to cover so much ground, Alther has sacrificed her characters' individuality. "The reader is haunted by the thought that the central characters, with the exception, perhaps, of the obstinately individualistic Emily, exist chiefly in order to illustrate differently developing states of political consciousness, as their progress from childhood to maturity is traced in often absorbing but sometimes oppressive detail," remarked a Times Literary Supplement reviewer.

Whereas her first novel is a burlesque satire bordering on farce, Original Sins "is a protest novel of a conventional sort, a compound of outrage and doctrine," according to Mark Schechner in his New Republic review. "It is an all-out assault on the South for its rigidly maintained double standards on matters of race, sex, and class and for its failures to live up to its deficiencies."

Other critics faulted Alther's use of dialect and what some refer to as a didactic tone. "The essential problem with those nearly 600 pages," Susan Wood wrote in the Washington Post Book World, "is that they present every cliche you've ever heard about the South or about the political movements of the last two decades as though they are really, truly true: that is, with no sense of the complexities of individual lives, with no sympathy for the characters." Wood added that such characters, like stick figures, are difficult to perceive as real people. Gray suggested that "Alther takes risks that sometimes fail. She is willing to sacrifice plausibility for comic effect, to put her characters through paces that occasionally seem dictated rather than inevitable. But such lapses are more than offset by the novel's page-turning verve and intelligence." Alther "gives generously, both to her readers and to the children of her imagination," Gray concluded. Cyra McFadden maintained in her Chicago Tribune Book World review that Alther's "excesses are those of overflowing talent and high spirits," and proclaims Original Sins "a thoroughly endearing book."

Other Women examines how women relate to each other in various roles—as friends, lovers, and patient-to-therapist. Caroline Kelley is a doctor's ex-wife who gives up on men for women, and after a disappointing affair with a female friend, seeks aid in psychotherapy. Suspense builds around the question of what her sexual preference will be after analysis. Caroline and therapist Hannah Burke are "believable characters with real problems and realistic attitudes," noted Merle Rubin in the Los Angeles Times. According to critics, elements in the novel identified as problematic are balanced against its positive features. Isabel Raphael of the London Times, for example, took particular delight in Alther's portrait of Caroline's parents, two self-sacrificing people who give so much of themselves to others that they have little left to offer their own children. In addition, says Raphael, Other Women has "some sharp insights and a disarmingly fluent style."

Alther's novel Bedrock continues her satirical look at contemporary American life. Chronicling the whirlwind life of middle-aged Clea Shawn—a wealthy woman who decides to leave a hectic cosmopolitan existence for a small town in Vermont—the novel presents a humorous portrait of small-town American life. As Barbara Rich explained in the Women's Review of Books, Bedrock's Vermont "is replete with characters so off-the-wall their very names bring a grin to the lips and a therapeutic, circulatory chuckle to the heart." Clea, too, is a comic figure, according to Jane Marcus in the Nation: "In Clea Shawn, Lisa Alther has created one of the most spoiled, overprotected and privileged heroines in recent serious fiction." Other critics were less enthusiastic. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Tracy Cochran claimed that Alther "never really brings her rural characters to life—and never achieves the humor and humanity that made Kinflicks so appealing." Merle Rubin, in a review for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, explained that "what Alther is doing is juxtaposing contrasting sets of stereotypes, over and over. Neither the story nor the characters are interesting enough in the first place to bear retelling."

Five Minutes in Heaven is a novel about a friendship between two women, Jude and Molly, which grows into a lesbian relationship. Following Molly's early death, Jude moves on to sexual liaisons with a gay man and another woman. Critical reaction to Five Minutes in Heaven was mixed. A Publishers Weekly critic considered it "a work of admirable ambition but only tepid interest," and Jeannine Delombard argued in the New York Times Book Review that, compared to the works of other women authors, Alther's "accounts of Jude's pansexual escapades seem tame, even quaint." However, Donna Seaman in Booklist called Alther "candid and genuinely inquisitive" as she "ponders the ambiguity of sexual relationships and the ‘cultural cacophony’ that accompanies them."

Alther returns to her Tennessee roots with her 2007 nonfiction work, Kinfolks: Falling off the Family Tree; The Search for My Melungeon Ancestors, "a wise, funny inquiry into the complexities of inheritance," according to Booklist contributor Donna Seaman. In this book, Alther documents her search for the origins of her family. Obvious confusion regarding such roots was presented to her simply by the fact that her mother was a New Yorker and her father a Virginian, yet Alther was born and raised in Tennessee. Her interest was spurred when a cousin informed her that he was a Melungeon, a multiracial denizen of Appalachia infamous for possessing the evil eye and perhaps even an extra digit. Melungeons are reputedly a blend of numerous ethnicities and races, including African, Native American, Portuguese, and Turkish. Alther goes on the hunt for her racial and ethnic background in archives in the United States as well as Europe in this "hilarious and incisive" account, as Seaman noted. In her search for her own origins, Alther also illuminates the importance of Appalachia as a receiving territory for a wide assortment of immigrants and refugees. New York Times Book Review writer Katherine Dieckmann was less enthusiastic about Alther's debut nonfiction work, terming it "a slightly murky traipse through the mysteries of origin and self-definition." However, Library Journal reviewer Janet Ingraham Dwyer had higher praise for Kinfolks, calling it a "lively, engaging volume." For Dwyer, the book was "part breezy memoir, part genealogical mystery tour, and part anthropological exploration."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 7, 1977, Volume 41, 1987.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, March 1, 1995, Donna Seaman, review of Five Minutes in Heaven, p. 1139; April 1, 2007, Donna Seaman, review of Kinfolks: Falling off the Family Tree; The Search for My Melungeon Ancestors, p. 16.

Chicago Tribune Book World, June 14, 1981, Cyra McFadden, review of Original Sins; December 9, 1984, review of Other Women.

Harper's, May, 1976, review of Kinflicks.

Library Journal, April 1, 2007, Janet Ingraham Dwyer, review of Kinfolks, p. 98.

Los Angeles Times, June 4, 1981, review of Original Sins; December 20, 1984, Merle Rubin, review of Other Women.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 29, 1990, Merle Rubin, review of Bedrock, p. 5.

Maclean's, May 7, 2007, Brian Bethune, "Fear, Folklore and Six Fingers: A Southern Novelist Searches for Her Hidden Melungeon Ancestors," p. 58.

Ms., May, 1981, review of Original Sins.

Nation, April 25, 1981, review of Original Sins; August 27, 1990, Jane Marcus, review of Bedrock, p. 212.

New Republic, June 13, 1981, Mark Schechner, review of Original Sins.

New Statesman, August 27, 1976. Valentine Cunningham, review of Kinflicks; May 29, 1981, review of Original Sins.

New Statesman & Society, August 17, 1990, review of Bedrock, p. 36.

New Yorker, March 29, 1976, review of Kinflicks; May 4, 1981, review of Original Sins.

New York Review of Books, April 1, 1976, review of Kinflicks.

New York Times, March 16, 1976, review of Kinflicks; December 10, 1984, review of Other Women.

New York Times Book Review, March 14, 1976, review of Kinflicks; May 3, 1981, review of Original Sins; November 11, 1984, review of Other Women; June 3, 1990, Tracy Cochran, review of Bedrock, p. 23; June 18, 1995, Jeannine Delombard, review of Five Minutes in Heaven; May 13, 2007, Katherine Dieckmann, "Mountain People," p. 28.

People, June 18, 1990, review of Bedrock, p. 26.

Publishers Weekly, February 27, 1995, review of Five Minutes in Heaven, p. 84.

Time, March 22, 1976, review of Kinflicks; April 27, 1981, Paul Gray, review of Original Sins; May 21, 1990, review of Bedrock, p. 82.

Times (London, England), February 28, 1985, Isabel Raphael, review of Other Women.

Times Literary Supplement, June 26, 1981, review of Original Sins; August 17, 1990, review of Bedrock, p. 868.

Village Voice, March 8, 1976, review of Kinflicks; December 18, 1984, review of Original Sins.

Washington Post Book World, March 28, 1976, review of Kinflicks; May 31, 1981, Susan Wood, review of Original Sins.

Women's Review of Books, March, 1985, review of Other Women, p. 14; July, 1990, Barbara Rich, review of Bedrock, p. 25-26.

ONLINE

Lisa Alther Home Page,http://www.lisaalther.com (April 14, 2008).

Lisa Alther MySpace Profile,http://www.myspace.com/lisaalther (April 14, 2008).

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