Ideas for Group Discussions

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 253

Novels which focus on family relationships are popular in group discussion, and many universities offer thematic courses on the family in literature. Discussion would probably focus on the social context of the novel, and the characters' search for autonomy within connectedness. Since Adams creates positive images of older Americans as...

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Novels which focus on family relationships are popular in group discussion, and many universities offer thematic courses on the family in literature. Discussion would probably focus on the social context of the novel, and the characters' search for autonomy within connectedness. Since Adams creates positive images of older Americans as her central characters, Caroline's Daughters would be an excellent choice for older readers or nontraditional students.

1. How does the relationship between Caroline and Ralph set a moral tone for the novel, and how do their daughters both respond and react to this image?

2. Examine the relationships between the five siblings-—their similarities and differences, their rivalries and commonalities.

3. How does Adams' create an image of the 1980's lifestyle, and what does she suggest about it? Is this image satiric, complacent, or somewhere in between?

4. Sexuality is a major metaphor in the novel—everyone thinks and even talks about it almost all the time. How is this an expression of the characters' different personalities and relationships?

5. What is the role of creativity—literary, artistic, or domestic—in the characters' developing sense of self?

6. How does Adams use the extreme contrast between rich and poor, opulence and deprivation, characteristic of the 1980's to comment on her characters and their times?

7. How do Caroline's trips—to Italy and Seattle—contribute to her attempt to come to terms with Ralph's death and her own life?

8. How does Adams present the challenges and rewards of growing older in our society? How does this compare with the popular image?

Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 452

Adams constructs her narrative as a series of vignettes interweaving scenes in the five women's lives, linked together by a consistent thread of authorial insight which reveals the secret thoughts of each. The scenes are mirror images of one another—complementary encounters which form an interwoven history. Coincidence, surprise, and the logic of moral consequences combine into an intricate, active narrative where everything is related and contextual. Possession leads to loss—Fiona's restaurant, Jill's money, Noel's seductive good looks in the Bolinas crash—while poverty is rewarded with surprise success in Sage's New York show and Portia's house.

The San Francisco setting which Adams so loves, and the countryside around it, becomes an emblem of American life in that decade. Caroline and Ralph, returning from five years in Portugal, are in a sense no longer quite American, and the more European flavor they bring, their more relaxed, mellow attitude, is a comment on the frenetic activity around them. Europe is the place where Caroline rediscovers herself, and some secrets she would have preferred to keep hidden after Ralph's death, and the contrasting setting of Seattle, are necessary to create the distance and acceptance she finds at the novel's end.

Houses and gardens are important, too, including Fiona's restaurant, Jill's apartment, the house Sage and Noel are always fixing up, Portia's cabin and the places she house-sits, Liza's family setting, and Caroline's house, where they gather from time to time, especially during Ralph's illness. All of these surroundings have a personalized aura which reflects each character rather than conventional taste, but it is really taste, or bad taste, which defines the atmosphere of the 1980's, not only pretentious clothes and personal trappings, but the eternal talk about food, drink, and travel, the yuppie talk which all the characters make fun of at various times. It is the hallmark of the 1980's that fundamental things be appropriated to selfish interests. Jill is a lawyer and Fiona a restaurateur, and although a society beset by injustice, homelessness, and hunger is in need of both, its needs are not served by these institutions. While Fiona's skinny patrons pick and choose their way between lavish California-cuisine and expensive wines, others talk of food pantries and homeless shelters.

Food and flowers are always present. The characters almost always meet over lunch, a meal, or even a picnic, and who controls these meals is frequently a site of conflict. When Noel takes over the celebration dinner which Portia has planned for Sage, the surprise meal Sage had planned for Jim is left behind in its bag. The most prominent of the flowers are roses, always associated with Caroline and her voluptuous garden, an expression of her own life-affirming nature.

Literary Precedents

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 156

Adams's literary precedents would seem to be those cited by Liza—"the heavy Victorians, Mrs. Gaskell and Gissing and Trollope, Dickens—and further down the line, Henry James and Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Bowen—and of course Virginia Woolf." The Victorians provide the backdrop of a social world driven by manners and the hidden imperatives of the human heart, combined with the modern writers' emphasis on motivation and introspection. The California family saga set against the backdrop of the 1980's was popularized in Howard Fast's Lavette family chronicles, The Immigrants (1977; see separate entry), Second Generation (1979), The Establishment (1980), and The Legay (1981), and tales of fast-living Valley girls take their roots from Jacqueline Suzann's Valley of the Dolls (1966; see separate entry). But Adams brought a new look to California characters by highlighting the growing recognition of a specifically female psyche rooted in relationships and contexts rather than individualism and autonomy, especially among older men and women with vibrant spirits.

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