“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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