The stories in Alice Adams’ new collection, To See You Again, are like small sculptures made of wood or stone: modest in proportion, smooth and clean to the eye, cool to the touch. Adams’ syntax is simple, her diction predominately monosyllabic; in one story, when characters stop for a picnic, “They all eat and drink a lot, and they talk eagerly about how good it all is, how beautiful the place where they are. The sky, the trees, the running brook.” Since there is so little figurative language in Adams’ prose, the metaphors that do appear spring out of their colorless background like brilliant flowers against a white tablecloth. This economical style has immediate appeal; each story is gracefully written, effortlessly read, but when To See You Again is considered as a collection, the cool, well-shaped surfaces of Adams’ writing ironically suggest that mere language is inadequate to the untidy mysteries of human feeling.
Foremost among these mysteries is love, though that word’s imprecision is itself one of Adams’ interests. Some of her characters, like the narrator of “True Colors,” define love as “the most overwhelming, most intense and inexhaustible sensuality”; at the same time, Adams’ people fear and long for intimacy beyond sex, the intimacy of shared laughter, of cooking for another person. In stories such as “The Girl Across the Room” and “At the Beach,” love is the habit of affection between a man and a woman, long married, finely tuned to each other’s needs and moods. Occasionally, as in “By the Sea,” a character’s fantasies about love numb her to its accessibility. Playing her variations on the theme of love, Adams creates one character after another whose lives are dominated by the effort to connect, to dispel a vast and urgent loneliness that threatens professional competence, artistic talent, and worldly success.
The characters thus preoccupied with love’s bitter mystery are mostly well-educated, upper-middle-class women who listen to Beethoven quartets, read novels, and drink white wine. Adams’ females tend to be stronger, more complex, and more likable than her males, partly because she either narrates from the woman’s point of view or adopts an omniscient stance that brightly illuminates a female character. Her Charlottes, Claires, and Lauras have interesting careers as part-time research assistants, commercial artists, editors, lawyers, sculptors. A few have literary or musical inclinations that they do not express through work, and these women are especially unhappy. Adams’ working women sometimes doubt their abilities; usually, though, they take pleasure in their own competence. Despite finding satisfaction in work, Adams’ small blondes and large dark women are ineluctably drawn to troublesome men. One character observes that “all her lovers have been difficult,” and another is well aware that she has “been known to fall madly in love with the most impossible men—but a lot of women did that.” Sometimes, as in “The Party-Givers” and “The Break-In,” Adams’ women are able to extricate themselves from unsatisfying relationships. More often, in such stories as “The Girl Across the Room,” “A Wonderful Woman,” “Legends,” “At the Beach,” and “To See You Again,” the woman is doggedly faithful, even to a difficult partner. Felicia, in “A Wonderful Woman,” speaks for more than one of her colleagues when she asks, “How could you leave a man in such despair?”
Despairing men fill the stories in To See You Again. There is Ran, the brilliant composer who drinks his way through his wife’s suicide, two love affairs, and a slow and painful death from emphysema. There are “Ian the handsome, the unkind, the menace to women,” and Gerald, the “sad fat husband, a distinguished architect” whose “depressions are as severe and as invariably recurrent as they are apparently incurable.” Those among Adams’ male characters who are not alcoholics or depressives are at least moody and temperamental. Most fear female strength and intelligence, the very qualities on which they depend. Only a few are as intuitive and kind as Adams’ women would like, and these few are likely to seem a little sentimental, a little childish because of Adams’ understated treatment. In “Snow,” for example, Graham feels, in a moment of emotional distress, “that his heart will truly break. It is more than I can stand, he thinks; why do I have to?” Although this distress is genuine enough, Adams’ language makes Graham’s protest an oversimplifying whimper. By contrast, the female...
(The entire section is 1889 words.)