Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 749
The real subject of Caroline's Daughters is the American landscape in the 1980's and its effects on those who came to maturity in it. Adams examines life in that gilded age through the perspective of a mother and her five daughters, their secrets and distances, and their concurrent desire for...
(The entire section contains 749 words.)
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The real subject of Caroline's Daughters is the American landscape in the 1980's and its effects on those who came to maturity in it. Adams examines life in that gilded age through the perspective of a mother and her five daughters, their secrets and distances, and their concurrent desire for separation and connectedness. Characters are always conscious of their particular place in history—their past, and its role in their present. Caroline and her husband, Ralph Carter, are liberal-radical denizens of a bygone era, just back from five years in Portugal, and aging beautifully, if a little taken aback at the changes they have come home to. Liza, the would-be writer, provides the most thoughtful insights; she remembers her 1960's childhood while watching her own children play in the sandbox in a park where she went to get stoned in high school, thinking how completely gone those days are, "swallowed by the strange Nixonian Seventies, and now the awful Eighties." Of the five half-sisters, Liza is the only one to have what might be called a stable family life. Sage, married to handsome, undependable Noel, is another sixties throwback, and Portia is Generation Xer, living in a cabin in Bolinas and housesitting for a living. Jill and Fiona are 1980's success stories, one a highly successful investment lawyer, and the other owner of a trendy Potrero Hill restaurant.
It is these two who illustrate the 1980's lifestyle. Fiona is a restaurateur who cannot cook, hates food, and weighs less than ninety pounds, and Jill turns thousand- dollar tricks on the side, in what she calls "The Game." Money, power, and sexuality all combine into an aphrodisiac for the 1980's. Money is proof of worthiness: "I did it because I got a thousand bucks a shot, and I knew I was worth it, and getting all that money helped me keep on thinking I'm terrific. Like buying hundred-buck panty-hose and two-fifty haircuts." All of this comes crashing down with the stock market on that fateful day when Jill lost almost a million, and her procurer appeared in the newspaper, along with the contents of his black book. Fiona's restaurant takes a downhill slide as its trend-following patrons move to a newer version, and Sage's husband, Noel, with whom Jill has been having an affair, smokes too much dope and drives off a curve at Stinson beach. As the selfabsorbed, self-congratulatory excesses of the 1980's come home to roost, others who had initially not fared so well under the new ethic come into the sunlight. Sage, whose artistic career has finally taken off, divorces her lethally handsome, narcissistic husband Noel and takes up with Fiona's former business partner Stevie, with whom she is pregnant at the novel's end. Portia inherits a house from one of her housesitting clients and takes a woman lover. Liza herself finally embarks on the writing career she has long desired, having sold a story to a popular magazine.
The disastrous moral price of the decade, however, still must be paid. After the death of Ralph, her labor-activist husband, Caroline is caught in the sphere of influence of Ralph's total opposite, Roland Gallo, the seductive Sicilian gangster and emblem of 1980's ruthlessness, former lover of both Sage and Fiona, and of Caroline as well, if she wished. Of Jill's involvement in the call girl operation, Caroline thinks "How selfish they all are, really—beautiful, selfish, spoiled, and greedy girls, San Francisco girls, perfect products of that spoiled and lovely city."
If prostitution, the Game, is the metaphor for 1980's greed and nihilism, the ubiquitous present of homeless street people is the mirror image of itself that privileged society cannot escape. Caroline herself is dogged by the specter of a mad bag-lady formerly married to one of Caroline's husband's colleagues, a woman Caroline once envied for her polished perfection in the role of doctor's wife. That polished perfection overlaying a distraught, ravaged interior is another emblem of "the elegant Eighties," an image in which appearance masks a lack of substance, as with the novel's politicos, who are always comparing themselves to Ronald Reagan, and their campaigns, in which there are no issues, only images. Salvaging this woman, the other half of herself, becomes an obsession with Caroline, who locates the woman's sister in Seattle, the northern, pure refuge from a soiled, broken San Francisco. Restored, Caroline ends the novel looking forward to a little more promising nineties which, as a survivor, she faces with equanimity, if not elation.