Alice Adams Adams, Alice (Vol. 6) - Essay

Booth Tarkington

Adams, Alice (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Adams, Alice 1926–

Alice Adams is an American short story writer and novelist.

Families and Survivors is a sneaky novel. As you start to read you are taken in: the writing seems so sharp, so clean, so controlled. Moreover, the author, a frequent New Yorker contributor, knows how to handle the material of fiction—narrative, dialogue, description, and so on. Her accomplished prose carries her a long way, even to the manipulation of the cliché, a sure sign of The Writer.

But as you read on, a number of serious flaws become ominously apparent and you begin to suspect that this material Adams handles with such ease is really very tired stuff, on the one hand, and on the other, stylistically indefensible.

The plot, a chronicle-shaped affair, spans thirty years—1941–1971—in the lives of Louisa, Kate, their friends, husbands, lovers, and ex's. The settings are brief and somehow unanchored; they hit Virginia, Radcliffe/Harvard, San Francisco, among other places. The characters are upper-crust and burdened by class-consciousness. Not very much happens except that these two girls/women fall in and out of love with a haphazard regularity that leaves the reader limp and groping for some little shred of "meaning." That's flaw one.

Flaw two is Adams's intensely irritating habit of inserting herself into the narrative via parentheses that signal far more than we need—or want—to know. For example: "(Since she loves to kiss him, she must be in love with him, mustn't she—of course she is.)" There are dozens of these parenthetical, confidential cues scattered within a relatively short text. For example again: "(Much later in life, Louisa is to decide that to love Michael is to hate oneself.)" Muriel Spark did this sort of thing brilliantly in her early novels; it is a technique that should be used with the lightest, most sparing of touches or it gives a book a pedantic, almost prissy tone and, worse, tends to sound like self-parody.

Finally, this novel appears to pose questions it never quite gets around to answering. Are we reading about Love? Sex? Growth and Change? The mating habits of the haute bourgeoisie? What relationship do Kate and Louisa actually share, aside from having been adolescents in the same place at the same time? There is an aborted quality to so many of the novel's scenes that I have the uneasy feeling that Adams's skill as a short-story writer prevented her from writing an integrated novel. She is so good at forming and exploring small, enclosed narratives that she neglected to string them together in a developing and coherent way. A novel ought, in some way, to build. This one seems to lie in pieces.

A black named King is, for my money, the best and most interesting character in the book, but he too is left for dead along the way. Adams also does kids remarkably well.

A "literary" novel gone flat.

Anne Bernays, "A Sneaky Novel About Love? Sex? Growth and Change?," in Harvard Magazine (copyright © 1975 Harvard Magazine; reprinted by permission), February, 1975, p. 59.

Before we were told there was no such thing, that it was impossible for such a thing to exist, critics of both sexes wrote of something called "feminine sensibility" in fiction. The term was meant not to be pejorative but delimiting. By it one meant realistic novels that were intelligent and well-written, that were less concerned with cosmic cataclysms than with the subtle, even subliminal encounters that make men and women edgy; the focus was narrow but the perceptions were intense.

"Families & Survivors" is one of those novels. In a brief space the author covers 30 years and perhaps half as many characters, following Louisa Calloway from uneasy adolescence in Virginia through college and then her marriage and second marriage, her affairs, motherhood, her friends and their children, her search for a usable identity. "Louisa could have been beautiful if she had only known who she was," Alice Adams tells us; in time, after much unhappiness, Louisa arrives at a kind of accommodation, for she is also "a born survivor."

These characters and situations have furnished many novels. To make them interesting again is a considerable technical problem that Adams resolves, I think, quite well. Her economical narrative, written in the present tense with constant parenthetical glimpses into the future, has a kind of floating quality entirely suited to the insecurity of these people's lives. The omniscient author—a device I had thought permanently retired—flourishes here: Adams maintains a running commentary on the actions and opinions of her characters. If it is a little difficult to keep the characters straight, and a little hard to remember what happened when one puts the novel down, each scene is nonetheless very sharp and the dialogue true. Why should not some fiction be evanescent?

Peter S. Prescott, "Edgy Woman," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), February 3, 1975, p. 64.

Families and Survivors by Alice Adams is a book to savor. It is also a you-can't-put-it-down book, but unlike many of those it belongs to our permanent literature. For, it seems to me, Alice Adams has found a new way to tell the great American dynasty stories we love. No coach and four: She has a gleaming ten-speed….

[The] author hovers over her people with 19th-century busyness and 21st-century insight. (Assuming we shall get smarter. Uneasy assumption.) She speaks the premonitions only the most tuned-up subconscious hears….

This is a book one would like to send to a first husband to tell him what really happened.

Jill Robinson, "A New Place, a Chillier Season," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 23, 1975, p. 3.