Superior Women

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

“Did you ever read those really old books about girls’ boarding schools?” one character asks another in Alice Adams’ Superior Women, “there were always four girls. One beautiful and rich and wicked, and one big and fat and jolly.I think one was poor and virtuous and the other one was very smart.”

Alice Adams’ great strength as a writer of fiction has always been her ability to depict the emotional bonds that can exist between women—mothers, sisters, daughters, friends—as they move in and out of the erotic relationships with others that determine the direction of their lives. In Superior Women, her fifth novel, this subject moves from the periphery to the center of her field of vision. The story of four young women who meet at Radcliffe for an accelerated college course during World War II and remain friends, more or less, for the next forty years, Superior Women is Adams’ “boarding-school book,” her contribution to a popular genre of fiction exemplified in the past by Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1963) and Rona Jaffe’s Class Reunion (1979).

Megan Greene, naïve, bookish, plump, and lusty, provides the point of view through which the reader observes the antics of rich Lavinia, inscrutable Cathy, and boisterous Peg as they develop (or fail to develop) into the “superior women” of the title. All privileged, if only by virtue of their opportunities, and all, the reader is told, extremely intelligent, they prove to share the weaknesses of ordinary mortals, suffering unhappy marriages, intertwined love affairs, and unwanted pregnancies like other female members of their generation.

Adams’ previous novels, in particular Listening to Billie (1978) and Rich Rewards (1980), conveyed with great skill and charm the sense of growing up in the 1940’s and the 1950’s and of being an adolescent or young adult in milieus so rich in atmosphere that they impressed themselves upon the memory and became inseparable from experience: New York jazz clubs, San Francisco frame houses, cottages in Maine. The author has an eye for significant detail and the ability to create characters who are at once interesting and sympathetic.

Although Adams’ gifts have not entirely deserted her, admirers of her earlier fiction are likely to be disappointed by Superior Women. There is a certain slickness and superficiality here that is not evident in her previous works. The author is still able to evoke effectively a crowded Greenwich Village apartment or a Cambridge coffee shop, but the characters are finally too stereotypical to be believable and their interactions so predictable that they become annoying. Novels that follow a group of people for several years are inherently episodic. In this case, the conventions of the work undermine it.

Megan Greene, often referred to by her friends somewhat inexplicably as “little Megan,” meets her fate in a Palo Alto, California, bookstore when a Harvard premed walks in, bringing to her starved sensibilities an exotic atmosphere of New England autumns, Cape Cod clamming parties, and preppie tweeds. Madly in love, Megan somehow arranges to start college at Radcliffe in the following year. (The ease with which people are able to arrange such transformations is one of the more dubious aspects of the novel.) Her motivation is partly to see more of the soon-faithless George and partly to live out her own highly charged fantasies of Eastern college life.

Megan, the reader is told, is good at imagining other people’s lives. She is also an inveterate fantasizer, hearing waltzes when debutantes are mentioned and envisioning herself and her friends in novels that increase in complexity as her literary taste develops from popular fiction to Henry James and Marcel Proust. She is selected by sophisticated Lavinia as a confidante and thus becomes part of a tight select group that excludes the other girls in the dormitory. “She’s just so—so Jewish,” says Lavinia of one aspirant with whom Megan traitorously remains friends.

Quite plausibly, it is never clear what draws this particular group together. Lavinia, with her silk bathrobes and quick scorn, dominates the group, gossiping about the quiet Midwestern Cathy and allowing herself to be given back rubs by Peg, the noisy, maternal one, but it is Megan who has the incredibly satisfying sex life (“You’re a living sexual fantasy,” says her afternoon lover. “Do you have any idea how extraordinary you are?”) and graduates summa cum laude, feeling only slightly chagrined when she is excluded from Lavinia’s fancy wedding. Peg gets pregnant and married, Cathy breaks up with her rich but vulgar boyfriend and becomes a grind, Janet—the “so—so Jewish” girl, drops her plans to go to medical school to marry a crazy Irish playwright.

The comment about boarding-school novels quoted above seems...

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Literary Techniques

Adams's own authorial persona provides insight and context to the interwoven voices of her characters. All the "superior women" tend to be thoughtful and reflective about their own behavior, and share their thoughts with others: "Megan has of course got over her hurt about not going down to Washington—of course Lavinia would never have asked her to. She has even been able to tell Cathy about that ludicrous fantasy, which has become another joke between them . . ." Characters reveal themselves through their own thoughts and dialogue, but in addition to the dramatic irony created when certain of those thoughts contradict or shed a different light on what has been said or done, Adams's authorial voice lets the reader know when characters are self-deceiving or just plain wrong. After one of Lavinia's staged departures Adams opines: "The sad part is that for all her cleverness, her assiduous scholarship, in terms of Henry, Lavinia was absolutely wrong. Lavinia had created a certain 'Henry' as her lover from scraps, and from her own demanding imagination. She could not know that as Lavinia left him that day . . ." The primary narrative is interspersed with an old-fashioned epistolary style, letters by which the friends keep in touch with one another and with themselves, even when, as in the case of Peg, the letters are never mailed.

Setting is an important organizing principal, as characters move from East to West, or South to Lavinia's Fredericksburg or to North Carolina and the civil rights movement. Adams's settings are realistic—real big cities and small towns, Ivy League universities, Southern California, the Carmel coast and Stanford, Chapel Hill and the small southern town. The Radcliffe setting, complete with dorm rooms, Megan's 12th street apartment, Lavinia's wealthy digs, and the sweltering despondency of Peg's Midland, Texas, suburb are all clearly realized. The details of daily life and style: clothes and hair, fashions, furniture and decoration, and especially flowers, are meticulously described. Food, drink, and idiom are important parts of place as well. The structure of the novel moves between these settings—the superficial openness of the West Coast, the frenetic social demands of the East, the heady liberatedness of postwar Paris, and the South—nostalgic and cloying, as in Lavinia's recreation of her childhood home in Fredericksburg, Peg's nightmarish suburbia, or the alternately threatening and rejuvenating South in which Peg, Megan, and their extended families establish their final home.

Ideas for Group Discussions

Because its narrative follows the five friends for four decades, Superior Women has much to offer a group or class looking for a highly textured novel with many avenues for access. Since it explores the feminist themes of friendship, work, and sexuality, the novel is a good choice for women's studies classes as well.

1. The emergence of female friendship as a literary theme is very apparent in Superior Women. What is the basis for the different relationships between the women, and what does it say about female friendship?

2. How does Superior Women present the development of a feminist consciousness over the decades? How does the characters' evolution mirror attitudes towards women in these different time periods?

3. Megan Greene and Lavinia Harcourt are natural foils for one another. What do their differences say about human nature and the nature of female identity?

4. How does Adams treat the male characters in the novel? Do you find any stereotypes? Which characters are more completely developed?

5. What does the novel say about the relationships between men and women? What attitudes promote positive ones, and which negative? How does marriage fit in?

6. What is the role of money, power, and social class in the novel?

7. How does Adams's depiction of the Civil Rights movement and civil rights workers compare with similar accounts in the media of the time?

8. Does the end of the novel seem realistic? What is Adams trying to show in this rather "fairy tale" ending?

9. Explore Adams's use of irony in her narrative comment on characters and their actions. How does the irony negotiate the territory between distance and compassion?

Social Concerns

The major issue in Superior Women, Alice Adams's fourth novel and first best-seller, is how American women who came of age in the 1940s negotiated their limited opportunities and possibilities to carve a place for themselves in the decades to follow. We first meet Megan Greene in California, an emblem of freedom in 1942 from the traditional constraints of class, family, history, and codes of proper behavior. When the scene soon shifts east to Radcliffe College, class privilege and inscrutable rules of decorum are strictly applied by Lavinia, the snobbish Southern beauty who dominates the small circle of Megan, Cathy, Peg, and Janet. The novel traces the lives of these women from 1942 through the early 1980s, documenting the...

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Literary Precedents

Adams's characters are great readers, and their choice of novelists gives us an idea of Adams's literary milieu, as well as a key to the characters themselves. Lavinia admires Marcel Proust, especially the Duchess de Guermantes; Cathy and Megan share a liking for Henry James; and Janet reads John Dos Passos. The type of narrative Adams writes, however, is also in the tradition of the Victorians, not only Dickens, but also Mrs. Gaskel and George Gissing; modern writers who may have influenced her include Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, and Margaret Drabble. The young women themselves joke about how their group resembles those in the girls' boarding school novels popular in their youth, even to the typical characters found there, as in the novels of Rona Jaffe, Marilyn French, Marge Piercy and, of course, Mary McCarthy, whose novel, The Group? (1963; see separate entry), is a precursor to Superior Women.

Related Titles

Superior Women did not become part of any series, nor do these characters appear again elsewhere, although some of the settings do. The contrast between the South and the West, here epitomized in Lavinia and Megan, is internalized in the dual personalities of many Adams's heroines, and the way geography is reflected in lifestyle and character is a common theme. The New York and European settings are special to Superior Women, but the transplanted New Englander in California is found in many of her novels, especially in Second Chances, where the denizens of San Sebastian are from New England and Louisiana, and in Medicine Men (1997; see separate entry), where the central character is a Southerner divorced from a New Englander who now lives in California. The comedy of manners set up by Southern, Western, and Eastern lifestyles and cultural differences provides conflict between and within Adams's characters.

The idea of black and white women bridging racial divides to form friendships, and even business partnerships, appears in Southern Exposure (1995). Another novel of the 1940s, this one focuses on the relationship between white women and their black "help," a recurring motif in Adams's fiction.


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Glamour. LXXXII, October, 1984, p. 240.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, July 1, 1984, p. 581.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 30, 1984, p. 1.

Ms. XIII, September, 1984, p. 28.

The New York Times. September 7, 1984, p. 24.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, September 23, 1984, p. 9.

The New Yorker. LX, November 5, 1984, p. 160.

Newsweek. CIV, September 24, 1984, p. 82.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, June 22, 1984, p. 87.

USA Today. III, October 5, 1984, p. 3D.

Vogue. CLXXIV, September, 1984, p. 570.

The Wall Street Journal. CCIV, September 21, 1984, p. 28.