Adams, Alice (Vol. 13)
Jane Larkin Crain
[Alice Adams's] widely acclaimed "Families and Survivors" succeeded chiefly as high soap opera that chronicled an avalanche of marital castastrophe overtaking its upper-middle-class cast of characters as the hidebound 50's gave way to the "liberated" decade that followed….
[In] "Listening to Billie," the author, still pretty much preoccupied with moneyed cosmopolitan types, narrows her cultural perspective somewhat, to focus on two women, half-sisters, whose separate fates are meant to embody specific contemporary ordeals and options of their sex. (p. 15)
Powered by the author's cool, spare prose, this novel creates beautiful surfaces—tableaux composed of sleek creatures perfectly arranged in elegant rooms, romantic, exquisitely detailed landscapes—that have an almost tactile appeal for the reader, like fine wood and fabric. The seedier side is reproduced with equal vividness: the neurotic intimacy of women thrown together in dull, workaday routines, tawdry city scapes in rundown neighborhoods, the suffocating vacuity that sometimes masquerades as the good life behind impeccable suburban facades.
But even as one is drawn into these various and well-wrought surroundings, a curious lifelessness abounds; despite the passionate dramas one is told are everywhere unfolding—the plot involves suicide, divorce, the making of fortunes, heartbreak, travail of every sort—"Listening to Billie,"...
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Alice Adams's clean, spare prose and subtle choice of details make Listening to Billie a pleasure to read. She has, moreover, a rare sympathy for almost all her characters: Even Daria's sexist, Nixonite husband is generously portrayed. At the center of the novel, though, Eliza herself is curiously unfocused. Although we are told that she "pursued intensity with lemminglike directness," she seems on the contrary a woman of considerable emotional guardedness. Although she sleeps with many men, she falls in love with only two, and then only briefly; and when one of these men is unfaithful, she throws him out with admirable presence of mind (no lemminglike self-destructive urges there!) and lets what seem to me rather fancy hesitations keep her from marrying the other. Eliza is likable and mature but as self-contained as a cat—the antithesis of the passionate, reckless singer she so deeply admires. (p. 31)
Katha Pollitt, in Saturday Review (© 1978 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), March 4, 1978.
The typical Alice Adams short story [in "Beautiful Girl"] announces itself in the very first sentence as a thing of edgy wit and compressed narrative power….
What blossoms from such packed beginnings can be a marvel of delicacy….
[Admirers of Miss Adams's novels] will feel at home in her first collections of stories, for all but two of the stories are set on familiar Adams turf: the South with its aging good ole boys and fading belles, San Francisco with its wistful hippies and well-heeled sophisticates. Familiar, too, is the tenderness that Miss Adams bestows on the worlds she evokes…. (p. 14)
Miss Adams writes with a seductive grace that burnishes even a slight tale such as "Winter Rain," a reminiscence of a student year in Paris and the formidable, quintessentially French widow in whose luxurious flat the narrator boarded for an outrageous sum. She is a consummately pleasing writer. Is it churlish of me to wish that she had given her gifts more of a workout, strained more against her limits? Too many of these stories are about a certain type of woman: She is married to someone prosperous, a little stolid, and not much in evidence; she has an independent income or a little part-time job, and no serious interests; she is romantic, prone to love at first sight, and she establishes her claim to senstivity to rereading Jane Austen every summer, up at her place in the country. I kept waiting for Miss Adams to flash an ironic smile toward these supremely sheltered, idle, unexamined people, like the narrator of "Attrition," who sees portents of doom for Western civilization in the prospect of another...
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No other writer in recent memory has called to mind quite so clearly the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, both in style and subject matter, as Alice Adams does in [the short stories in Beautiful Girl]. But to say that her work resembles Fitzgerald's—a resemblance that was apparent in her novels, Careless Love, Families and Survivors and Listening to Billie—is not to suggest that Adams is some sort of second-rate imitator. Like all writers of any significance, she knows her past, her inheritance, and has learned how to use it in her own time and place; it is a matter of carrying on and extending a particular tradition….
Like Fitzgerald, [Alice Adams] has a fine satiric eye softened by a tenderness toward human desire and frailty. The first three stories in the book introduce us to the Todds, carrying us through a period of 35 years in their lives. "Verlie I Say Unto You," surely one of the finest of these fine stories, shows both the inadequacy of the Todds' response to their black housekeeper's grief at the death of her lover and Jessica Todd's dim awareness of her feeling of kinship with sorrowing Verlie. All three of the Todd stories, in fact, satirize the family … while at the same time gently reminding us how we are all caught in the human predicament of loss. Part of their power to move us lies in Adams' ability to sustain a delicate tension between ideas of free will and circumstance, of how we choose and are chosen.
A great deal of a writer's success is related to the strength of his "voice"; it is a difficult factor to define, impossible to identify by quotation because its essence is continuous and cumulative. In Alice Adams' case the voice of her prose gives a certain tone and pitch to her sentences, a certain richness and fullness of style that has to do with the warmth she feels toward the people she writes about.
It is refreshing and hopeful to find a writer in this day and time who, although recognizing love's possibilities for destruction, can still write about the ways in which love, both sexual and platonic, is akin to salvation.
Susan Wood, "Stories of Loss and Love," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), January 21, 1979, p. G3.
If [Edna] O'Brien is the bold red heart of the Valentine, then Adams is the lacy edging. Distance and time help these characters [in Beautiful Girl] sort out the delicate significance of love's mysterious hold on them. These are very private dramas: a jealous husband, a girl confused by her parents' marriages, or a woman insecure after an apartment break-in—all keep silent about it.
Adams concentrates on emotions so poignant they are almost beyond words of expression. (p. B6)
Janet Domowitz, in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1979 by The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), February 12, 1979.