Caroline’s Daughters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555

Viewers caught in the summer lull between the announced cancellation of THIRTYSOMETHING and the promised return of this yuppie soap opera in the fall may well want to look into CAROLINE’S DAUGHTERS, the seventh novel by the highly regarded short story writer, Alice Adams. The novel follows a year in...

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Viewers caught in the summer lull between the announced cancellation of THIRTYSOMETHING and the promised return of this yuppie soap opera in the fall may well want to look into CAROLINE’S DAUGHTERS, the seventh novel by the highly regarded short story writer, Alice Adams. The novel follows a year in the life of Caroline Carter and her five daughters (by three marriages) and begins soon after Caroline, sixty-five, and her third husband, Ralph, a leftist political writer and former longshoreman, have returned from a five-year stay in Lisbon (paid for, like most of her daughters’ homes, by money from the estate of Caroline’s actress-playwright mother. Sibling rivalry, inadequate mother-daughter relations, and domestic crises predominate along with descriptions of scenic views, attractive homes, terrific food, expensive clothing, and especially San Francisco’s usually glorious weather.

Caroline will, of course, weather all the tough times, including Ralph’s death. Daughter Sage, forty-one, the aging hippie and struggling ceramicist, will survive her affair with a much older man (a randy mayoral candidate who goes on to have an affair with her sister Fiona and tries to seduce her mother), will throw herself at one of her two stepfathers, and finally not only have her career as an artist blossom but have her adulterous husband agree to a divorce (without apparently asking for any of her money) and become happily pregnant (by a man in tune with his feminine side). Liza, thirty-five, a former Flower Child, now the wife of a psychiatrist with a social conscience and mother of three well-adjusted children, feels confined, turns to fiction writing, and nets $3000 for her first story and a book contract for her second. Fiona, thirty-three, owns San Francisco’s trendiest restaurant (although she hates food), is unhappy, wants to marry but does not, and, after selling her no longer quite so trendy restaurant for a huge sum, is last seen opening a trendy brothel with her sister Jill, thirty-one, a lawyer-stockbroker-call girl. And finally there is the “floundering” Portia, twenty-five, whose idea of homemaking is housesitting, which will net Portia both a house of her own (inherited from an elderly surrogate mother) and a lover, Helen Daid, the Lebanese lawyer who handles the estate. Caroline may worry about becoming too “present in her daughters’ lives"; however, it is more her physical and emotional absence that has impressed itself on her children. Though correct in her judgment of them (self-absorbed, often selfish), she remains blind to her own indifference to all but her roses and herself.

Interesting as this novel is in its structure, its compelling subject matter, and its light ironies, unique touches, and occasional satire, CAROLINE’S DAUGHTERS rarely goes beyond the level of caricature and cliche strung together on a plot line bristling with improbabilities and upscale political correctness. Adams may have intended all of this, writing a mock romance, an archly feminist fairy tale in the guise of Anthony Trollope’s slice-of-life, the-way-we-live-now realism. On the basis of the author’s previous fiction one would have to assume, however, that CAROLINE’S DAUGHTERS is a far less ironic work than it needs to be. Having borrowed a bag lady from MADAME BOVARY (with appropriate change of sex), Adams should have borrowed a bit more of Flaubert’s skepticism concerning “received ideas” from his BOUVARD AND PECUCHET.

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