Readers and critics alike generally regard Alice Adams as one of the major American writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Her death in August of 1999 marked the end of a distinguished, decades-spanning career during which Adams produced eleven novels and a host of award-winning short stories. After the War, published posthumously, is her last book, and a fitting close to her years as a writer.
Set in Pinehill, North Carolina, a small university town, After the Warpicks up where Adams’s previous novel, A Southern Exposure (1995), left off. World War II is in its closing months, and the characters whom Adams first introduced in the earlier novel are a bit older, but no wiser, in this most recent chapter of their lives. There are many important characters in the book; indeed, sometimes it is difficult to distinguish the major from the minor players. Central to the book is the story of Cynthia, Harry, and Abigail Baird, displaced Connecticut Yankees who moved to Pinehill during the Depression.
After the War opens with Cynthia preparing for a garden party she is giving for her daughter Abigail and Melanctha Byrd, who will be leaving Pinehill to attend college in the North soon. As Cynthia prepares for the party, she considers the current affair she is having with Derek McFall, a suave war correspondent; the state of her marriage to Harry, who is now serving in the Navy in London; and her former affair with Russ Byrd, Pinehill’s semifamous poet. Clearly, while the characters in Adams’s book may not be overly complicated people themselves, they lead highly complicated lives.
In the first chapter, the reader also meets Odessa, the strong-willed and outspoken African American maid who works for the Bairds and lives in their garage apartment. Her husband Horace is also in the Navy, serving in the Pacific. The interchanges between Odessa and the other women in the story, all white, provide some of the most interesting and enjoyable passages in the book. Certainly, these exchanges open questions about both racism and relationships that deserve attention. While Cynthia prides herself on her lack of prejudice, her actions reveal that she, too, carries cultural assumptions that are no less damaging than those of her Southern neighbors.
Dolly Bigelow, a plump, gossipy Southern woman, also appears in the first chapter of the book. Dolly provides a foil for Cynthia’s sometimes smug Northern air of superiority. In perhaps one of Adams’s best pairings, both Cynthia and Dolly reveal to the reader (but never to each other) intimate details of their lives. In truth, neither woman is what she appears to be to the other. That both women have had affairs with Russ Byrd and that neither thinks the other knows adds an ironic twist of hidden knowledge.
The relationship between Cynthia and Deirdre Byrd is another interesting pairing. Deirdre is a young, beautiful woman who had an affair with Russ Byrd, recounted in Southern Exposure. In After the War, she has returned to Pinehill with her “brother” Graham (who everyone knows is really Russ’s son), and she marries Russ. After Russ’s death, Deirdre ends up, quite unexpectedly, with Cynthia’s lover Derek. Again, Cynthia’s understanding of Deirdre and the reader’s are quite different. This tension allows for some enticing dramatic irony as Deirdre, always considered a bit stupid by Cynthia, demonstrates her own native intelligence.
The younger generation of Pinehill natives also has its stories told inAfter the War. Abigail Baird goes north to college and falls in love with Joseph Marcus, a brilliant physics major whose parents are Communists. By introducing the Marcuses into the story, Adams is able to foreshadow the terrible McCarthy years. At the same time, her portrayal of the Marcus family is not entirely positive. The Marcuses welcome into their home first Ben Davis, an African American friend of Abigail who is very handsome, and later Ed Faulkner, another African American who has been wrongfully suspected of pushing Russ Byrd off a train and killing him. Adams depicts the Marcuses’ involvement with both of these young men as self-centered; they see the young men as being potentially useful in the political struggle in which the Communists are engaged.
(The entire section is 1770 words.)