Adams, Alice 1926-
(Full name Alice Boyd Adams) American short story writer and novelist.
In her fiction, Adams tends to focus upon well-educated, upper middle-class female professionals whose lives undergo transformations during their search for happiness and independence. Anne Tyler has characterized these heroines as "perceptive . . . intelligent and a bit world-weary." Adams has stated in an interview with Neil Feineman that she prefers writing short fiction to novels, and several commentators have observed that her talents are best suited to that genre. Reflecting on her economy of style, Robert Phillips has observed, "William Blake said, 'You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.' Alice Adams knows the latter. She suppresses and condenses, allowing the reader to make vital connections between situation and character."
An only child, Adams was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and raised by her parents in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where her father taught Spanish at the University of North Carolina. Upon finishing high school at age fifteen, Adams entered Radcliffe College. She graduated in 1946 and worked for a New York publisher for less than a year. She married in 1947 and moved to Paris, where her husband was studying. The marriage was unhappy, but she returned with her husband to the United States in 1948. They settled in California, where he taught and continued his education. Adams worked on her writing and cared for their child, who was born in 1951. The couple eventually divorced in 1958. The following year she published her first story, "Winter Rain," in the magazine Charm. Adams struggled financially in San Francisco for the next few years while working several unsatisfying jobs. In 1966 her first novel, Careless Love, appeared in the United States, where it was poorly received, though it fared somewhat better in England the next year. Following the unremarkable performance of Careless Love, Adams wrote romances for the women's magazines Cosmopolitan, Redbook, and McCall's. In 1969 The New Yorker published "Gift of Grass," signalling Adams's inaugural appearance in a literary journal. "Gift of Grass" also became her first story to receive the O. Henry Prize, an esteemed annual award given to exceptional works of short fiction. Adams continued to garner recognition for her short stories, which continued to appear in magazines and journals. Many of these were gathered in the 1979 collection Beautiful Girl. Two more novels by Adams had also been published by the time Beautiful Girl was published, confirming her vocation as a writer, despite the mixed reviews that the books received. Her 1975 novel Families and Survivors earned a nomination for a National Book Critics Circle Award, and the following year she received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1978 Adams secured a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, and in 1982 she received the O. Henry Special Award for Continuing Achievement, an honor shared only by Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike. She continues to live in San Francisco and occasionally teaches at Stanford University and the University of California at Davis and at Berkeley.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Adams's stories often are defined by the motifs of love, loss, longing, and insecurity. In "A Pale and Perfectly Oval Moon," Adams tells of a man who becomes fully aware of his love for his deceased first wife only after he has begun a comfortable second marriage. The troubled sixteen-year-old protagonist of "Gift of Grass" secretly leaves two marijuana joints for her distraught stepfather as a form of consolation. "Roses, Rhododendron" contrasts the idealized outward appearance of a family with the actual dysfunctional state of their relations. The stories of Return Trips, like earlier narratives such as "Beautiful Girl," revolve around individuals trying to come to terms with their past or nostalgically recalling momentous events or relationships in their lives. In the collection To See You Again Adams depicts older characters coping with change and pursuing paths of self-discovery. Some other common themes in Adams's fiction include the demands and value of lifelong friendships and the difficulty of sustaining romantic relationships.
While Adams has written several novels, she began her career publishing short stories, and it is her story collections that have consistently earned her praise. A highly skilled writer whose craftsmanship is widely recognized, Adams has a manner that has been likened to that of a painter. As Linda Pastan stated in a review of To See You Again, "Like a watercolorist, she is skilled in rapidly and economically landscaping her world." Beverly Lowry, writing about Return Trips, also likened Adams to a watercolor painter whose "every brush stroke must be perfect" and whose "hand is lightning fast and brilliant." While acknowledging the virtues of Adams's best fiction, reviewers have commented that many of her stories share a vague similarity that renders them monotonous. Adams tends to write about a certain type of woman, with familiar settings and subjects, and in a consistent style. In addition, others have noted that some stories lack resolution or concluding insight. Despite these perceived shortcomings, Adams has earned a reputation as an authority on contemporary American women. Barbara A. Herman has summed her artistic aims: "With a sharp eye and a sympathetic voice, Adams writes about woman's coming of age in contemporary society—discovering her identity, working out her social and personal relationships, and finding a rewarding occupation. For her heroines, . . . the 'they married and lived happily ever after' ending will not suffice. Adams believes that the contemporary woman has more, or at least different, criteria for a meaningful life."