Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Lisa Alther (AL-thur), née Reed, grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee, the daughter of a surgeon father who encouraged her curiosity about science and a mother who had majored in English and led her to an early interest in literature. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1966 with a B.A. in English and soon after married Richard Alther, a painter, from whom she was later divorced. Her daughter, Sara, was born in 1968. Alther worked briefly in publishing in New York; although she subsequently moved to rural Vermont, she still considers herself very much a southern writer.
Alther at her best balances broad humor with acute observation of an imagined world that many readers will find closely resembles the real one. In her first novel, the best-selling Kinflicks, for example, teenaged protagonist Ginny Babcock’s first lover, amid the awkward groping that has come to characterize many fictionalized first sexual encounters, suddenly surprises her—and the reader—with an eerily wormlike glow-in-the-dark condom.
In all of her work, feminist writer Alther takes a harsh look at the relationships among often hypocritical characters, their aspirations and roles in society, and the ways they fool themselves into a belief that life is proceeding according to some sort of plan. In Alther’s world, tragedy is not so much tragedy as a potential learning experience—or so Alther’s characters try desperately to believe.
In Kinflicks, Ginny Babcock, at her mother’s hospital bedside, comes to respect the way her mother faces death with quiet stoicism. In alternating chapters, Ginny looks back at the twists her life has taken over the years as she moved from high school flag twirler to studious, humorless Ivy Leaguer, to radical lesbian, to dutiful housewife and mother, to less-than-dutiful wife whose husband has informed her that he never wants her to see their daughter again. After her mother’s death, Ginny considers suicide, then changes her mind, packs up her mother’s clock and her Sisterhood Is Powerful T-shirt, and leaves,...
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The female characters at the center of Lisa Alther’s fictions have similar experiences. They come from families that are nonsupportive and are dominated by parents with unrealistic expectations for their children. The heroines grow up with the assumption that heterosexuality is the only kind of sex. At some point in the protagonists’ lives they find fulfillment with other women and realize that they are either lesbian or bisexual.
Several of these characters are married and have children. The marriages of these characters break up. At some point in their lives, the characters have what can be called an identity crisis. This may be the result of a conscious or subconscious recognition that they seem to bring death to those close to them, or it may be a result of a perception that they would be more secure in a marital relationship. The characters may try suicide before deciding that life is better than the alternative. The characters may try psychotherapy, with positive results.
The theme of Alther’s fiction is the difficulty of finding permanent satisfaction in a lesbian relationship. This is to some extent the result of societal disapproval of such relationships, but it often seems to result from an inherent failing within the relationships. Only in Bedrock, in which two women who have been friends for many years embark on an affair in their forties, is there a novel with a lesbian pairing that does not end badly.
Alther’s handling of what could be depressing material is, in most of these novels, delicate and humorous. Especially in Kinflicks and Bedrock the problems of the characters are lightened by humor. Such matters as adolescence and mishandled suicide attempts become, in Alther’s prose, funny. Even in the darker world of Other Women there are flashes of amusement. The novels deal realistically with serious problems, but the telling of the stories of these characters is less grim than it could be.
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Ferguson, Mary Anne. “Lisa Alther.” In Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. A helpful introduction.
Ferguson, Mary Anne. “Lisa Alther: The Irony of Return?” Southern Quarterly 21 (Summer, 1983). Reprinted in Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitmen Prenshaw. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984. A critical evaluation that focuses on Kinflicks.
Hall, Joan Lord. “Symbiosis and Separation in Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks.” Arizona Quarterly 38 (Winter, 1982). Focuses on Alther’s first novel.
Kawada, Louise. “Liberating Laughter: Comedic Form in Some Lesbian Novels.” In Sexual Practice, Textual Theory, edited by Susan J. Wolfe. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1993.
Peel, Ellen. “Subject, Object, and the Alternation of First-and Third-Person Narration in Novels by Alther, Atwood, and Drabble: Toward a Theory of Feminist Aesthetics.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 30 (Winter, 1989). Focuses on Kinflicks. Discusses works by Margaret Atwood and Margaret Drabble.
Roth, John K., ed. American Diversity, American Identity: The Lives and Works of 145 Writers Who Define the American Experience. New York: Henry Holt, 1995. The section “Balancing Acts: America’s Gay and Lesbian Identities” is devoted to gay and lesbian writers. It offers entries on Alther, Rita Mae Brown, Larry Kramer, David Leavitt, Audre Lorde, Armistead Maupin, Paul Monette, and Edmund White.