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.
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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.
(The entire section is 323 words.)