(Short Story Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Beautiful Girl 1979

To See You Again 1982

Return Trips 1985

After You've Gone 1989

Other Major Works

Careless Love (novel) 1966

Families and Survivors (novel) 1975

Listening to Billie (novel) 1978

Rich Rewards (novel) 1980

Superior Women (novel) 1984

Second Chances (novel) 1988

Mexico: Some Travels and Some Travelers There (nonfiction) 1990

"The American Short Story in the Cybernetic Age" (essay) 1991; published in Journal of the Short Story in English, Vol. 17

Caroline's Daughters (novel) 1991

James N. Baker (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Delicate Balance," in Newsweek, Vol. XCIII, No. 2, January 8, 1979, pp. 61-2.

[In the following review of Beautiful Girl, Baker declares Adams's stories "elegant" and "artfully simple."]

Alice Adams is something of an anachronism.

Instead of trying to dazzle us with verbal acrobatics or hammering away at ugly truths about society in the manner of many of her contemporaries, she writes elegant short stories that recall such past masters of the form as Flannery O'Connor and Katherine Mansfield. Like them, she offers fleeting, melancholy glimpses of ordinary people made extraordinary by her perception.

[The stories in Beautiful Girl] are old-fashioned stories, artfully simple in structure, rich in precise language and consistently moving in their examination of imperfect human relationships.

Adams puts surprising nuances into fairly standard conflicts. In "A Pale and Perfectly Oval Moon," Van, cozily ensconced in a second marriage to "simply very nice" Joan, secretly mourns the death of his bitchy first wife. "Had she been shrewish on purpose so that he would miss her less?" Her most striking stories, however, tell of more offbeat relationships in which help comes unexpectedly. A disturbed teenager in "Gift of Grass" senses for the first time her inattentive stepfather's chronic despair and charitably hides two joints of marijuana in his desk. In the title story, a once-rejected suitor turns up in time to save the cause of his old torment—a former beauty—from the ravages of middle-age alcoholism.

Two stories—the collection's best—flicker between past and present. Two Southern brothers in "The Swastika on Our Door," once so proud of their racism, intellectual superiority and self-imposed isolation at Harvard, gradually grow apart: one turns gregarious and prospers, but is forced to stand helplessly by while the other remains ascetic and dies young. In the enchanting "Roses, Rhododendron," the narrator recalls how as a fatherless little girl in the 1930s she idealized a friend's family. One night, she witnessed a sudden, violent quarrel at their dinner table: "That exposed depth of terrible emotions might have suggested to me that the Fairs were not quite as I had imagined them, not the impeccable family in my mind—but it did not. I was simply and terribly—and selfishly—upset." This story about the mysteries of little girlhood—and their solutions in later life—is as stirring as the best work of Mansfield.

Laurie Stone (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Short Circuits," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIV, No. 14, April 2, 1979, p. 87.

[In the following review of Beautiful Girl, Stone finds Adams 's treatment of physical appearance refreshing, but she judges the stories trite.]

People tend not to write about what they don't like or wish did not exist—once it was blacks, homosexuals, and strong women. The fat and slovenly are the new subversives in the culture of the fit, threatening to the status quo ideal, undifferentiated and almost invisibilized in our art. When is the last time you read a story about a fat person?

Fat, plump, or strange-looking characters appear with arresting...

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Dean Flower (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Picking Up the Pieces," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 293-307.

[In the following excerpt, Flower provides a mixed assessment of Beautiful Girl.]

[Adams] has been represented in every O. Henry Award collection for the last eight years, and her three novels (most recently, Listening to Billie last year) have received much praise, but to my mind her fiction fails—despite its numerous attractions—to offer a sufficiently serious criticism of the worlds she knows so well. Adams moves easily from Chapel Hill to New England to San Francisco, usually in the society of the rich: "Ardis Bascomb," the title story begins, "the...

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Alice Adams with Neil Feineman (interview date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Interview with Alice Adams," in Story-Quarterly, No. 11, 1980, pp. 27-37.

[Below, Adams discusses the style, themes, and characters of her fiction.]

[Feineman]: I had loved Families and Survivors so much that I couldn't even finish Listening to Billie when it came out. But in rereading it, I found it a much better book than Families and Survivors.

[Adams]: I think it is a better book, a more difficult book. As you just said, it's not instantly appealing. It was a terribly hard book to write.

In it, you define poetry as, among other things, an overreaction to experience. Does this describe your own writing as...

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Carolyn See (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "23 Stories Form Necklace of Thought," in Los Angeles Times, April 13, 1982, Section V, p. 6.

[In the following review of To See You Again, See praises Adams's stories as "hard and sharp and unbearably concrete. "]

The conventions for describing women short-story writers are almost as constricting as the form itself. "Wise and witty" are words used often (can you imagine "wise and witty" applied to a novel by Norman Mailer?); "Wise, witty, luminous, delicate." But just as the best women short-story writers work in unexplored realms, the words to describe their creations may not have been invented yet. (The Tlingit Indians had no word for lighter fluid.)...

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William Buchanan (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of To See You Again, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 20, Nos. 2-3, Spring-Summer, 1983, p. 143.

[In the following review of To See You Again, Buchanan discusses common characteristics of Adams's stories and comments on comparisons of her writing with that of Flannery O'Connor and Katherine Mansfield.]

[To See You Again] collects nineteen stories, a majority of which first appeared in the New Yorker and reflects the milieu of many of its readers: the educated, the talented, the well-to-do, the divorced, in their pursuit of pleasure, mostly extra-marital sex and cocktails. Most of them end on an affirmative note....

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Linda Pastan (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of To See You Again, in American Book Review, July, 1983, p. 4.

[Here, Pastan maintains that Adams's attention to character and detail enable her to skillfully reveal "the whole of an emotional life" in each story.]

Though the titles of Alice Adams' books often sound like the names of popular songs, the books themselves are beautifully crafted tales of the complexities of modern life, particularly for women. It is difficult to publish a collection of short stories these days, and Alice Adams has paid her dues to the market place with some very good novels. But it seems to me that the short story is her true métier. Like a watercolorist, she is...

(The entire section is 910 words.)

Anne Boston (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Return Trips, in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4322, January 31, 1986, p. 112.

[In the following review of Return Trips, Boston asserts that Adams's stories are monotonous in their unvarying treatment of individuals trying to come to terms with their lives.]

Going back, especially to the place where you were happiest, is usually a mistake, as more than one character discovers during the course of these stories by the American author of the novel Superior Women. The strongest afterimage [in Return Trips] is left by the story "Molly's Dog", in which a "newly retired screen writer" makes a "return trip" to...

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Lee Upton (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Changing the Past: Alice Adams' Revisionary Nostalgia," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 33-41.

[In the following essay, Upton analyzes the function of nostalgia in Adams's short stories.]

Alice Adams extends upon and recasts our definitions of nostalgia. Dispossessed, the female characters in her short fiction turn to their memories as their most volatile, and promising, possessions. These women rechart their lives, actually returning—imaginatively and, more often than not, physically—to past landscapes. This hunger for retrospectives emerges as a peculiar form of nostalgia. Nostalgia, with its semantic reference to...

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Kirkus Reviews (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of After You've Gone, in Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1989, p. 1008.

[In the following review of After You've Gone, the critic finds that most of the stories in the collection are weak, although a few are "jewels. "]

It's too bad that Adams titled [After You've Gone] after the weakest of the 14 stories here—a smug monograph narrated by a jilted lawyer and directed at her poet exlover—because it may discourage Adams fans from delving further to sift out a few scattered gems.

In "Fog," for instance, as a small mishap redirects that start of a San Francisco dinner party and ends up changing the course of a few...

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Catherine Petroski (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tales of Broken Love," in Chicago Tribune, September 3, 1989, p. 5.

[In the following review, Petroski appraises the themes and characters of the stories in After You've Gone.]

Alice Adams' new collection of short stories, [After You've Gone], is the work of a writer at the height of her powers—lucid, confident, refined, adept, provocative, perspicacious, startling and satisfying.

Adams is among the most triumphantly feminine, if not militantly feminist, writers working in a form sometimes considered the special preserve of female writers. In years to come, these stories may well be valued for extra-literary reasons, for they...

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Ron Carlson (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Clobbering Her Ex," in The New York Times Book Review, October 8, 1989, p. 27.

[In the following essay, Carlson judges Adams's stories in After You've Gone stylistically polished but emotionally and psychologically unsatisfying.]

The 14 short romances in Alice Adams's new collection [After You've Gone] are—with two exceptions—about women. These women are professionals (lawyers, painters, college deans, authors, political activists, architects, psychologists, physicists, sculptors) who live in the upscale world of gracious houses in cities from California to Maryland. They travel to Italy with lovers and on lecture tours without lovers,...

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Greg Johnson (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Some Recent Herstories," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XLIV, Nos. 1-2, Spring-Summer, 1990, pp. 278-88.

[In the following excerpt, Johnson commends Adams's depiction of women's relationshipsromantic and platonicin After You've Gone.]

In After You've Gone, Alice Adams' tenth book of fiction, the typical character is an intelligent, career-minded woman whose personal history includes a series of failed relationships with men. Her heroines tend to hold feminist ideals—generally they are self-supporting, intellectually autonomous, and politically liberal—but fail to practice these ideals when choosing and relating to their male...

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Barbara Frey Waxman (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Beginning the Journey to Selfhood in Middle Age," in From the Hearth to the Open Road: A Feminist Study of Aging in Contemporary Literature, Greenwood Press, 1990, pp. 45-94.

[In the following excerpt, Waxman interprets "A Wonderful Woman," "Lost Luggage," and "To See You Again" as belonging to the Reifungsroman genre because they are stories in which middle-aged characters discover their self-identities and determine new directions for their lives. In the introduction to her book, Waxman defines Reifungsroman as the "novel of ripeningopposing its central tenet to the usual notion of deterioration in old age. "]

With good reason the...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Herman, Barbara A, "Alice Adams." Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain, pp. 11-21. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Divided into the following sections: biography, discussion of themes, survey of Adams criticism, and primary and secondary bibliographies.


DeMott, Benjamin. "Stories of Change." The New York Times Book Review (11 April 1982): 7, 17.

Referring to the fact that most of the characters in the stories in To See You Again seek to alter their lives, DeMott states: "Practically...

(The entire section is 416 words.)