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Adams, Alice 1926–

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Adams is an American novelist and short story writer. Her fiction is characterized by its spare, clean prose and its focus on the emotional life of her protagonists. (See also CLC, Vol. 6.)

Jane Larkin Crain

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 586

[Alice Adams's] widely acclaimed "Families and Survivors" succeeded chiefly as high soap opera that chronicled an avalanche of marital castastrophe overtaking its upper-middle-class cast of characters as the hidebound 50's gave way to the "liberated" decade that followed….

[In] "Listening to Billie," the author, still pretty much preoccupied with moneyed cosmopolitan types, narrows her cultural perspective somewhat, to focus on two women, half-sisters, whose separate fates are meant to embody specific contemporary ordeals and options of their sex. (p. 15)

Powered by the author's cool, spare prose, this novel creates beautiful surfaces—tableaux composed of sleek creatures perfectly arranged in elegant rooms, romantic, exquisitely detailed landscapes—that have an almost tactile appeal for the reader, like fine wood and fabric. The seedier side is reproduced with equal vividness: the neurotic intimacy of women thrown together in dull, workaday routines, tawdry city scapes in rundown neighborhoods, the suffocating vacuity that sometimes masquerades as the good life behind impeccable suburban facades.

But even as one is drawn into these various and well-wrought surroundings, a curious lifelessness abounds; despite the passionate dramas one is told are everywhere unfolding—the plot involves suicide, divorce, the making of fortunes, heartbreak, travail of every sort—"Listening to Billie," is an emotionally unevocative book.

Is this, one wonders, because the narrator is running away from the dangers of melodrama? No, as it turns out, more than excessive narrative control is involved in the great distance the reader feels from the novel's action. Only rarely do any of the characters' reactions seem rooted in the scene at hand and not in a schematic sense of things fixed in the mind of the author. Eventually, it becomes clear that a falsification of reality is under way here, a falsification that ostensibly hails and champions brave new turning points in the life of the contemporary woman, but which actually winds up minimizing and trivializing her.

Thus Daria, whom Eliza is pleased to call at the novel's close "a kind of heroine," is in fact from beginning to end a bizarrely motiveless creation, and one must have reference to categories altogether outside the novel in an effort to fathom her. Really, what is one to make of a character who is granted heroic stature for giving her (despised) husband's money away to the United Farm Workers? Or of a financially independent Eliza, who wins a pat on the head from the narrator when she is at last able to hug herself for being a writer? Is woman no more than this?

Although the profusion of "mad housewife" novels spawned by women's-liberation rhetoric seems, blessedly, to be waning, a new genre of woman's novel appears to be emerging. Like Eliza, the heroines of such novels eventually find "fulfillment" in a kind of sanctified selfishness, with a total devotion to the self and its "needs" held up as salvatory. Not surprisingly, such arid and circumscribed notions result in less than resonant fiction. One feels that ideology is doing its dirty work throughout Miss Adams's novel and that it ultimately succeeds in banishing genuine feeling from its pages.

Ironically, the author alludes in her title to a woman who, at certain boozy 3-o'clock-in-the-mornings, seems unmistakably to be singing of women's timeless sorrows and joys. How odd that Miss Adams should have chosen Billie Holiday, the real thing, as an emblem of this book's bloodless ups and downs. (pp. 15, 37)

Jane Larkin Crain, "Sanctified Selfishness," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 26, 1978, pp. 15, 37.

Katha Pollitt

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Alice Adams's clean, spare prose and subtle choice of details make Listening to Billie a pleasure to read. She has, moreover, a rare sympathy for almost all her characters: Even Daria's sexist, Nixonite husband is generously portrayed. At the center of the novel, though, Eliza herself is curiously unfocused. Although we are told that she "pursued intensity with lemminglike directness," she seems on the contrary a woman of considerable emotional guardedness. Although she sleeps with many men, she falls in love with only two, and then only briefly; and when one of these men is unfaithful, she throws him out with admirable presence of mind (no lemminglike self-destructive urges there!) and lets what seem to me rather fancy hesitations keep her from marrying the other. Eliza is likable and mature but as self-contained as a cat—the antithesis of the passionate, reckless singer she so deeply admires. (p. 31)

Katha Pollitt, in Saturday Review (© 1978 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), March 4, 1978.

Katha Pollitt

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The typical Alice Adams short story [in "Beautiful Girl"] announces itself in the very first sentence as a thing of edgy wit and compressed narrative power….

What blossoms from such packed beginnings can be a marvel of delicacy….

[Admirers of Miss Adams's novels] will feel at home in her first collections of stories, for all but two of the stories are set on familiar Adams turf: the South with its aging good ole boys and fading belles, San Francisco with its wistful hippies and well-heeled sophisticates. Familiar, too, is the tenderness that Miss Adams bestows on the worlds she evokes…. (p. 14)

Miss Adams writes with a seductive grace that burnishes even a slight tale such as "Winter Rain," a reminiscence of a student year in Paris and the formidable, quintessentially French widow in whose luxurious flat the narrator boarded for an outrageous sum. She is a consummately pleasing writer. Is it churlish of me to wish that she had given her gifts more of a workout, strained more against her limits? Too many of these stories are about a certain type of woman: She is married to someone prosperous, a little stolid, and not much in evidence; she has an independent income or a little part-time job, and no serious interests; she is romantic, prone to love at first sight, and she establishes her claim to senstivity to rereading Jane Austen every summer, up at her place in the country. I kept waiting for Miss Adams to flash an ironic smile toward these supremely sheltered, idle, unexamined people, like the narrator of "Attrition," who sees portents of doom for Western civilization in the prospect of another middle-aged couple moving to Israel, in a few weeks of drought, in the theft of her purse at a dinner party. She never does.

Perhaps because she is used to the larger scope of the novel, Miss Adams seems sometimes to underestimate the possibilities of the short-story form. While deft and careful … her stories do not always dig deep enough into their subject to satisfy the interest their craftsmanship arouses. In "Gift of Grass" we see teen-age Cathy at a session with her unsympathetic and mercenary psychiatrist, then we follow her to Golden Gate Park, where she stretches out on the grass with a joint and waits "for the melting of her despair." Now, we think, we'll find out what goes on inside her head—what is she thinking, fantasizing, remembering, wishing? Instead of telling us, Miss Adams just has her fall asleep. Of course, we know in a general sort of way what's bothering Cathy, but that's not because she's a vivid fictional character, it's because she's a recognizable type. (pp. 14, 27)

What Miss Adams can do when she sets herself a real imaginative challenge is brilliantly demonstrated in "Verlie I Say Unto You," the first of three stories about a Southern family, the Todds. Verlie is the Todd's maid, in the 1930's, and her story is both a moving narrative of her difficult life and a sharp-eyed depiction of her employers. There is plenty of real grist for Miss Adams's powers of observation in the Todd's leisurely, "enlightened" racism.

The everyday unhappiness of the Todds—he philanders in a kind of awful, technically chaste Fugitive-poet sort of a way; she is lonely and puzzled by the meagerness of her life—stands in stark contrast to Verlie's passionate and tragic love affair with the gardener, which takes place before the Todds' unseeing eyes. Of the many sorrows produced by racism, Miss Adams seems to be saying, the most profound is the mutual loneliness it creates between black and white: Jessica Todd and Verlie, who should be able to comfort each other, are unable to acknowledge their griefs to each other. Theirs is a story that gathers meaning with each reading, and one that makes me hope Miss Adams's next collection will contain many stories as ambitious and as hard-won. (p. 27)

Katha Pollitt, "Good Ole Boys and Wistful Hippies," in The New York Times Book Reivew (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 14, 1979, pp. 14, 27.

Susan Wood

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 387

No other writer in recent memory has called to mind quite so clearly the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, both in style and subject matter, as Alice Adams does in [the short stories in Beautiful Girl]. But to say that her work resembles Fitzgerald's—a resemblance that was apparent in her novels, Careless Love, Families and Survivors and Listening to Billie—is not to suggest that Adams is some sort of second-rate imitator. Like all writers of any significance, she knows her past, her inheritance, and has learned how to use it in her own time and place; it is a matter of carrying on and extending a particular tradition….

Like Fitzgerald, [Alice Adams] has a fine satiric eye softened by a tenderness toward human desire and frailty. The first three stories in the book introduce us to the Todds, carrying us through a period of 35 years in their lives. "Verlie I Say Unto You," surely one of the finest of these fine stories, shows both the inadequacy of the Todds' response to their black housekeeper's grief at the death of her lover and Jessica Todd's dim awareness of her feeling of kinship with sorrowing Verlie. All three of the Todd stories, in fact, satirize the family … while at the same time gently reminding us how we are all caught in the human predicament of loss. Part of their power to move us lies in Adams' ability to sustain a delicate tension between ideas of free will and circumstance, of how we choose and are chosen.

A great deal of a writer's success is related to the strength of his "voice"; it is a difficult factor to define, impossible to identify by quotation because its essence is continuous and cumulative. In Alice Adams' case the voice of her prose gives a certain tone and pitch to her sentences, a certain richness and fullness of style that has to do with the warmth she feels toward the people she writes about.

It is refreshing and hopeful to find a writer in this day and time who, although recognizing love's possibilities for destruction, can still write about the ways in which love, both sexual and platonic, is akin to salvation.

Susan Wood, "Stories of Loss and Love," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), January 21, 1979, p. G3.

Janet Domowitz

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 105

If [Edna] O'Brien is the bold red heart of the Valentine, then Adams is the lacy edging. Distance and time help these characters [in Beautiful Girl] sort out the delicate significance of love's mysterious hold on them. These are very private dramas: a jealous husband, a girl confused by her parents' marriages, or a woman insecure after an apartment break-in—all keep silent about it.

Adams concentrates on emotions so poignant they are almost beyond words of expression. (p. B6)

Janet Domowitz, in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1979 by The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), February 12, 1979.

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