Lisa Alther

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 850

Lisa Alther (AL-thur), née Reed, grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee, the daughter of a surgeon father who encouraged her curiosity about science and a mother who had majored in English and led her to an early interest in literature. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1966 with a B.A. in English and soon after married Richard Alther, a painter, from whom she was later divorced. Her daughter, Sara, was born in 1968. Alther worked briefly in publishing in New York; although she subsequently moved to rural Vermont, she still considers herself very much a southern writer.

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Alther at her best balances broad humor with acute observation of an imagined world that many readers will find closely resembles the real one. In her first novel, the best-selling Kinflicks, for example, teenaged protagonist Ginny Babcock’s first lover, amid the awkward groping that has come to characterize many fictionalized first sexual encounters, suddenly surprises her—and the reader—with an eerily wormlike glow-in-the-dark condom.

In all of her work, feminist writer Alther takes a harsh look at the relationships among often hypocritical characters, their aspirations and roles in society, and the ways they fool themselves into a belief that life is proceeding according to some sort of plan. In Alther’s world, tragedy is not so much tragedy as a potential learning experience—or so Alther’s characters try desperately to believe.

In Kinflicks, Ginny Babcock, at her mother’s hospital bedside, comes to respect the way her mother faces death with quiet stoicism. In alternating chapters, Ginny looks back at the twists her life has taken over the years as she moved from high school flag twirler to studious, humorless Ivy Leaguer, to radical lesbian, to dutiful housewife and mother, to less-than-dutiful wife whose husband has informed her that he never wants her to see their daughter again. After her mother’s death, Ginny considers suicide, then changes her mind, packs up her mother’s clock and her Sisterhood Is Powerful T-shirt, and leaves, otherwise unencumbered, having no idea of her destination. The general mood is surprisingly optimistic, as Ginny has finally faced the fact that her life has been filled with false starts and wrongheaded notions.

Alther’s second novel, Original Sins, is less humorous than Kinflicks but concerns many of the same themes and kinds of characters. There are five protagonists, close friends through childhood in the mid-1950’s, living in the same type of Tennessee environment as Ginny Babcock. Like Ginny, these characters face disillusionment or lie to themselves in order to hide from it. The five friends gradually drift apart, meeting again only at the funeral of one of them. Like Kinflicks, Original Sins uses much doubling and framing: the novel begins with the characters as children, fantasizing about their futures. At the end of the novel, the five children of the now-thirty-year-old characters sit in the same tree, believing they will not make the mistakes that their parents have made.

The major portion of Other Women, Alther’s third novel, involves exchanges between the depressed, thirty-five-year-old Caroline Kelley, an emergency-room nurse, and her sixtyish psychotherapist, Hannah Burke. Chapters alternate between Caroline’s story, in which she tells of being ignored in childhood by radical left-wing parents, and of her failed marriage and long-term lesbian relationship, and the story of Hannah Burke, who has suffered much in her life but somehow come through it all. In this novel more than in the previous two, the protagonist seems to find genuine—rather than illusionary—reason for optimism at the end, gradually ridding herself of depression and leaving her job as an emergency-room nurse to work in a delivery room.

Bedrock, Alther’s fourth novel, was not as well received as the previous three, in general because of critics’ perceptions of the characters, especially the male characters, as being one-dimensional. Bedrock examines the lives of quirky, eccentric residents of a small Vermont town, jumping from one wacky point of view to another. The main plot relates to a love affair, not consummated until the novel’s end, between two women, a successful middle-aged photographer, Clea Shawn, and Elke, a sculptor. The title refers to Clea’s attempt to find “bedrock”—a firm foundation for her life, which has so far eluded her—as well as to the prehistoric dwelling of the Flintstones cartoon characters.

Alther’s 1995 novel, Five Minutes in Heaven, like Bedrock, received more negative than positive reviews. The title refers to a childhood kissing game the protagonist, Jude, plays, in which participants are locked in a closet for five minutes to “let nature take its course.” It also refers to the fact that all the people Jude loves tend to die: her mother, two close childhood friends, and, most recently, a lover. Jude ends up working as a book editor in Paris, mystified by the French and involved in yet another doomed, obsessive love affair. After deciding not to commit suicide, in a vivid scene in the Paris catacombs, Jude returns to the United States, unsure, like Ginny Babcock in Kinflicks, what her next move will be.

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