Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1770
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.
Melanctha Byrd, another member of the young generation, has her own problems. She, too, travels north to college, but with less stellar results. She is overly self-conscious of her large bosom, and an anonymous phone call from a male caller sends her into a depression and retreat from life. The death of her father also affects her deeply, although she asserts that she hated Russ. In any event, she finds herself living with her stepmother and half-brother Graham in Pinehill until she eventually marries.
Other minor characters color the pages of the novel. Jim and Esther Hightower, for example, provide yet another glimpse at the contrast between Southern living and the New York scene. Esther’s death from cancer nevertheless provides one of the more touching moments in the book. In addition, in her creation of Graham Byrd, Adams gives herself the opportunity to address issues of homosexuality.
Most critics agree that Adams is at her strongest when she is describing life in the South. Her characters speak the language, and, through the creation of Cynthia Baird, Adams provides the reader with a narrator who can view this life with an outsider’s gaze. Moreover, the individual actions of her characters demonstrate the almost inevitable intertwining of lives in any small town.
Nevertheless, while After the War is a pleasant and quick read, it is not without its problems. First is the issue of its being a sequel. This may or may not be a problem; readers who have already encountered the characters in A Southern Exposure will feel that they are becoming reacquainted with old friends. Readers new to the book, however, will in all likelihood feel that the character development is lacking. Adams packs her book with so many major and incidental characters that none of them (with the possible exception of Odessa) seem particularly sympathetic. This is largely because there simply is not enough space to develop any of their stories fully.
Similarly, Adams casts her net wide in terms of the social issues she wants to address: Racism, McCarthyism, child abuse, homosexuality, marriage, posttraumatic stress, impotence, mental illness, depression, and sexism are some of the areas into which she treads. Unfortunately, just as her characters do not seem deep enough to handle any of these issues, neither does Adams’s narrative. Her treatment of racism, for example, seems superficial at best. Certainly she provides a nice contrast between the more overt racism of Dolly Bigelow and the insidious racism of the Marcus family, but in neither case does she delve very far below the surface.
In her depiction of the Baird marriage, Adams is at once at her best and worst. She accomplishes a difficult task, making the perpetually adulterous Navy wife Cynthia sympathetic through a variety of plotting strategies: Cynthia’s relationship with Derek McFall goes awry, she is unable to get into the law school at the hometown university because she is a woman, and, most notably, she is completely undone by the thought of Harry’s potential death. These factors all contribute to a rounding of Cynthia’s character. However, when Harry comes home and admits to an affair, Cynthia’s response seems cold and hypocritical. This undermines whatever sympathy the reader might have developed for the character. Further, while the state of the Baird marriage is what drives the second half of the book, the outcome is inconclusive, although it appears that the couple will reunite in Georgetown. Because the marriage itself remains largely underdeveloped, the reconciliation (if that is what it is) also remains underdeveloped. Again, this may be one of the inevitable problems of a sequel, since previous readers would already have an intimate knowledge of Cynthia and Harry’s lives. Nevertheless, one would hope for a stand-alone novel in which the characters and the relationships continue to carry the weight of the story.
Certainly, it is in her creation of relationships that Adams is at her best and worst. She ably sets up a series of interesting possibilities: Melanctha’s meeting with Ed Faulkner, Abigail’s love of Joseph Marcus, Harry’s return from the war, Graham’s homosexual affair, Odessa and Horace’s reunion, and others. These meetings and opportunities are well plotted, reflecting the way that life sometimes takes strange and interesting twists. The problem is one of development. Abigail and Joseph, for example, although supposedly deeply in love, have what seems to be a superficial, sexual relationship. In fairness, Abigail and Joseph’s wedding is the last scene of the book. Similarly, Odessa and Horace’s relationship is hidden from the reader in the same way that their relationship is hidden from the white people of Pinehill.
Stylistically, Adams has made a few choices that seem arbitrary. For example, she shifts point of view quickly and with little warning, leaving the reader fumbling for familiar ground. Further, she often shifts tenses. This technique can be very effective when used with an overall plan for a novel; however, in this case there seems to be no reason for the shifts. Consequently, sometimes even in the same paragraph, the tense jumps from present to past and back to present again.
That said, After the War will provide its readers with an interesting and pleasant foray into a moment of time that no longer exists. Moreover, reviewers of this novel suggest that Adams has perfect pitch for Southern diction and nuances. There are also those who suggest that Adams’s choice to skim the surface of social problems and relationships allows the reader indirectly to experience the darker waters below. Molly Haskell, for example, in a review in The New York Times, suggests that “the method of the Virginia-born author coincides with the modus vivendi of the characters she portrays, Southerners who use social conventions both to conceal and to reveal.” Adams’s characters do what people often do when faced with pain, sorrow, and the vagaries of life: They put off doing much about it. Most readers will find that the novel is an engaging visit with a group of old friends from a small town in the South, a group that is trying to determine just what life will be likeAfter the War.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 96 (August, 2000): 2072.
Los Angeles Times, October 10, 2000, p. 3.
The New York Times Book Review 105 (October 15, 2000): 16.
Publishers Weekly 247 (August 14, 2000): 329.
The Seattle Times, October 22, 2000, p. M10.
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