Alice Adams Biography

Alice Adams understood unfulfilled dreams like no one else. Her work was often defined by everyday people whose lives did not turn out the way they had hoped or expected. Adams’ perspective was based on experience. She toiled in unfulfilling jobs and spent much of her early adulthood in an unhappy marriage. One of her best-beloved stories, “Beautiful Girl,” is a case in point: it focuses on a past-her-prime beauty queen who has lapsed into alcoholism. As “Beautiful Girl” attests, Adams was keenly aware of the struggles and disappointments of women. Her characters could be difficult to like, but they were based on the real-life dreams and real-world failures faced by many American women, including Adams herself.

Facts and Trivia

  • Born in Virginia, Adams studied at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, graduating at the end of the Second World War.
  • Adams was widely recognized for her short stories and was the recipient of the prestigious O. Henry Award 23 times.
  • Her prolific output as a writer frequently puts her in the company of other authors with lengthy bibliographies, such as John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates.
  • A divorcee raising a child on her own, Adams was over forty years old before she found success (and permanent employment) as a writer.
  • Adams’ stories were often drawn from her own life. Her experiences as a secretary formed the basis for the novel Medicine Men.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1050

Alice Boyd Adams was raised on a farm south of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where her father, Nicholson Barney Adams, taught Spanish at the local university. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1945 and married Mark Linenthal, Jr., two years later. After spending some time in Paris, where Linenthal studied...

(The entire section contains 1050 words.)

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Alice Boyd Adams was raised on a farm south of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where her father, Nicholson Barney Adams, taught Spanish at the local university. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1945 and married Mark Linenthal, Jr., two years later. After spending some time in Paris, where Linenthal studied at the Sorbonne, the couple settled in California, where Linenthal taught English at San Francisco State University while completing his doctoral work for Stanford University. Their son, Peter Adams Linenthal, was born in 1951; Adams and Linenthal were divorced in 1958.

Adams’s first novel, Careless Love, published after the author had turned forty years old, quickly found an enthusiastic audience, particularly among women. The book tells the story of an adventuresome heroine, Daisy Duke Fabbri, who, eager to experience life, leaves a weak husband for a lover and a Latin lothario.

In her next novel, Families and Survivors, Adams chronicles the post-World War II lives of Louisa Calloway and Kate Flichinger, from their friendship as teenagers to the vicissitudes of marriage and divorce. Through Louisa’s hippie daughter the story comes full circle, for she is as different from Louisa as Louisa was from her own mother.

In Listening to Billie, Adams examines intense psychosexual situations. Evan Quarles, a professor and the husband of the heroine, Eliza, falls in love with “the most beautiful boy in the world,” a student in his Cicero class. Unable to cope with the situation, Evan commits suicide, as Eliza’s father had done. When thereupon both she and her stepsister Daria become infatuated with the same “most beautiful boy in the world,” Eliza begins to understand her husband’s obsession and comes to recognize the vulnerability of a person into whose otherwise predictable and dreary life beauty enters. By the 1970’s, Adams’s short stories had found an audience in magazines such as The New Yorker, Redbook, Mademoiselle, and Cosmopolitan. Her first collection of stories, Beautiful Girl, brought her further attention as a feminist chronicler of her times. In these stories, Adams centers on beautiful, intelligent, pained women who examine their pasts and arrive at important conclusions.

Daphne Matthiessen is the protagonist and narrator of Adams’s fourth novel, Rich Rewards. An interior decorator “of sorts,” middle-aged, and divorced many years earlier, Daphne comes to San Francisco to aid her friend Agatha with the renovation of an old house. An Easterner, Daphne, who is free sexually and enjoys men, views San Francisco’s beauty through unjaundiced eyes. Daphne meets Jean-Paul, a European and a socialist, whom she meets again years later, when as experienced and worldly-wise lovers they are able to enjoy “rich rewards.”

By the time To See You Again appeared in 1982, Adams’s art was ranked with that of Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, all three of whom received the O. Henry Award for their short stories. The nineteen stories in To See You Again are about the remembrance of things past. “Snow” recalls a skiing weekend in the High Sierras when the narrator, handsome San Francisco architect Graham, and his girlfriend, Carol, meet the tall lesbian lover of his obese daughter Susanah. What appears to Graham to be a threatening weekend becomes, instead, a time of warm friendship and mutual understanding. Continually provocative, Adams urged readers to consider unusual situations by framing them in another manner.

One of Adams’s best-known works, Superior Women, follows four decades in the lives of five young women who meet at Radcliffe in 1943. The leader of the group is Megan Greene, a straight-A student with “smoldering sexual energy.” Some of those who surround her are Lavinia, the “ice queen” debutante; Peg, the political activist; Cathy, the masochist, torn between self-denial and “hunger for life”; and Janet, who is pretty, feisty, and Jewish. The novel, which catalogs the women’s jobs and affairs, is formulaic and bulky, but it intrigues by the way it asks that age-old question, Are men put off by intelligent, accomplished women? In Superior Women, Adams answers in the affirmative.

The fifteen stories that make up Return Trips focus on women on the move. More self-aware with each decade, having been married more than once but now alone, these women are driven to discover themselves. Several stories deal with the ending of significant relationships. Most affecting, “Molly’s Dog” recounts how Molly and her gay friend Sandy argue over a stray dog and face the disintegration of their long-term friendship during a weekend in Carmel, California.

Second Chances, like Superior Women, deals with a group of men and women past middle age who live with the hope of changing themselves and their lives. The plot, unusual for Adams, is subtle rather than dramatic. The characters are reluctant to form new attachments because of their age and experience but generally approach each other with affection and respect. Caroline’s Daughters, in which Adams again combined satire and realism, describes five sisters, two fashionably thin ones, who have found a rather shallow brand of worldly and financial success, and three heavier and poorer but nicer ones, who are still searching for their places in the world. Almost Perfect, very different in its characters, shares a theme with Caroline’s Daughters. Here the protagonist, a tentative, lonely young photographer, finds love with a handsome artist who hides his mental instability as well as his involvement with at least two other lovers. A Southern Exposure deals with a couple in 1939 who move to rural North Carolina and encounter a variety of unconventional characters with bizarre and complex problems. Undaunted by their potentially disenchanting experiences, the family learns from their encounters and faces the future with optimism. In After the War, a sequel to A Southern Exposure, Adams continued to chronicle the intertwined lives of the residents of Pinehill, North Carolina.

In her collection The Last Lovely City, Adams focused on sophisticated women dealing with wandering husbands, belligerent children, and the tribulations of being divorced or widowed. Her protagonists are older veterans of the domestic wars of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Particularly in her short fiction, Adams was increasingly respected for her attention to detail and realistic dialogue. She explored extraordinary characters in believable yet uncommon situations and in doing so suggested particularly well the multiple dimensions of independent women. Adams died in 1999 at the age of seventy-two.

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