The novels and short stories of Alice Adams are excellent studies in time and place. Adams captures the setting and surroundings and, more important, the dialogue, which is never forced. A native of Virginia, Adams is especially adept at drawing southern characters and giving them authentic voices and believable motivations. As one critic wrote, “she depicts with sensitivity and intelligence the contemporary woman’s search for self-identity, independence, and stable relationships with both men and women.”
This search is especially evident in Adams’s bestselling book Superior Women, one of her more critically acclaimed novels. The four women in this story learn and grow in their relationships and in their roles as modern women, establishing themselves in careers, meeting the social struggles of their day, and following their hearts to realize their dreams and ambitions. Superior Women, along with Rich Rewards, Second Chances, and A Southern Exposure, are the best-received of Adams’s longer works of fiction.
A Southern Exposure
A Southern Exposure is set in Pinehill, a beautiful southern college town, in the 1930’s. The novel begins with the locally celebrated Byrd family—Russ and Sallyjane (whom Russ calls Brett) and their five children— driving back from a trip to California, where Russ has earned a good deal of money from his most recent play. Unknown to Russ, Brett had her own reasons for visiting California. She got an abortion, a fact she is keeping from everyone.
Driving through Kansas, Russ nearly runs off the road and kills what he at first believes is a small child walking with her mother. The child turns out to be a pig, and the odor of pig feces fills the air. Russ scrambles to repay Ursula, the pig’s owner, for her loss.
Back home in Pinehill, Russ buys a second house as a hideaway for himself and his beautiful young girlfriend, Deirdre Yates; the two have a child together, Graham. Pinehill is full of secrets, and gossip is shared over cold drinks on the veranda. These secrets, of course, are hinted at in the most cloying of terms and through innuendo, the knowing smile, and the clever nuances that plainly reveal what is intended to be hidden.
The story also features the Baird family: Harry and Cynthia, with their daughter, Abigail. The Bairds had moved to Pinehill in the hope of escaping their expensive and complicated lives in Connecticut. Cynthia has chosen this community for one reason: to meet and fall in love with poet James Russell Lowell Byrd, that is, Russ Byrd.
Another character, Jimmy Hightower, has built his dream home just up the road from theByrds, hoping some of Russ’s celebrity might rub off on him; but it does not. Russ is not interested in people who might be interested in him. In the meantime, the Bairds insert themselves into Pinehill society, adopt the local accent, and keep from “rocking the boat” on the issue of “coloreds.”
Adams has drawn convincing portraits in this novel and as well as those of Southern women who are stylish, genteel, and predictably small minded. Cynthia Baird’s closest friend, Dolly Bigelow, has trouble with her “help,” a tall, somber black woman named Odessa, who has an unerring eye for interior design. Cynthia recognizes Odessa’s talent and works behind the scenes toempower her to leave Dolly and change her fortunes.
Sallyjane, who now insists that she no longer be called Brett, drifts slowly into depression and steadily gains weight. Clyde Drake, a local psychiatrist, “adopts” Sallyjane and Russ and moves in with them. Dr. Drake’s nymphomaniac wife, Norris, is another woman—like Deirdre, Cynthia, and Sallyjane—who has fallen in love with the idea of Russ the southern poet. Sallyjane dies during electroshock therapy, clearing the way for Russ to have a passionate affair with Cynthia; he eventually marries Deirdre, however, after she becomes pregnant with their second child.
A Southern Exposure is an excellent novel, another work that displays Adams’s talent for characterization and capturing a sense of place and time. The wisteria, the hydrangeas, the magnolia blossoms of Pinehill fill every page. The reader encounters a theme like that of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind (1936), a time in the American South facing radical change and grasping at the prejudices handed down through the generations.
Stella Blake is half Mexican, the only child of a notquite- famous writer, the prodigal son of East Coast old money. Stella, whose mother is deceased, is estranged from her father and his latest wife. Stella lives in San Francisco and is a writer herself, penning feature articles for newspapers and the occasional magazine. She is poor, and once was the very young lover and companion to an aging film director. She has been cut off from the money of her father’s family and lives hand-to-mouth in a small, dreary apartment.
Richard Fallon is a narcissist, a womanizer, a closeted bisexual, a genius with design, a drunk, a great cook, and a high school dropout. He grew up poor in Patterson, New Jersey, and makes his living—on those rare occasions when he works—in advertising. Though Richard has many talents and skills, he mostly relies on his good looks to get through life’s rough spots. His former wife, Marina,whom he met and married in New Jersey, calls him to encourage him to face his many creditors and pay his ongoing debts. His former girlfriend, Claudia, calls him for the occasional sexual liaison, and his gay friend, Andrew, calls him to tempt him with new possibilities.
Stella and Richard first meet when Stella interviews Richard for an article she is writing. As it turns out, she never writes the article. Their encounter leads to a twoyear romance, one in which Richard grows steadily weaker and Stella grows progressively stronger. Stella is not Richard’s type. He prefers women who look like him: blond, tall, blue-eyed, Nordic types. Stella, who is short, dark complected, and intelligent is everything Richard is not. She is far more in love with Richard than he is with her.
Throughout the novel, Stella and Richard drink too much. They have a small circle of friends from both sides of their relationship. Richard has an enormous studio, attractively decorated by him with mostly junk. He also has a spectacular house in the country, which he designed. Stella and Richard, however, spend most of their time in Stella’s newly renovated apartment, which Richard has transformed from drab to dreamy. They make love often, cook dinners for each other, and drink.
Stella’s writing finds an audience in New York, and a major literary magazine begins buying her stories; the magazine soon signs her to a lucrative contract. Richard, it seems, has a number of promising projects, but those opportunities slowly evaporate into the black fog of San Francisco. Richard, in yet another affair with tall blonds (this newest one lives in Germany), cheats on Stella.
With Stella’s success, the relationship is thrown out of balance, and Richard retreats to booze, more sex, and thoughts of suicide. His decline finds him fleeing the Bay Area to Mexico City, where he and his dying friend, Andrew, are spending Andrew’s money. Stella slowly begins to recover from the loss of Richard and meets a young doctor who is the son of one of Richard’s friends. Stella moves from San Francisco, too, and she moves from memories of her two years with Richard and learns what it is like to be loved rather than used by the one loved.
In Superior Women, four Radcliffe College graduates in the early 1940’s share their dreams, their fears, their lovers, and, eventually, more than forty years of their lives. The cast of “superior women” includes Lavinia, a Southern belle in the proudest tradition, who is blond, incredibly well-bred, and a horrible bigot to her bones. Despite her lack of character, she is the novel’s scene stealer. She is larger than life, and she embodies every negative stereotype of the sophisticated, image-conscious, backbiting society princess. She respects money and everything it will buy her. She is highly practical and calculating, and is intolerant of everyone she perceives as not being her equal, which includes almost everyone. She serves masterfully as the character readers love to hate.
Lavinia, of course, cannot be the central character in the book because she is not sympathetic. The lead role in the novel goes to Megan, an outsider. Born and raised in California, Megan is jealous of what she perceives as East Coast sophistication. A little pudgy, Megan is a people person and is popular with the boys. She winds her way through the novel encountering a series of lovers. Her most important lover is the tall, dark-eyed intellectual Henry, who has been having an ongoing affair with Lavinia for years. Megan never marries or has children, but at the novel’s end she forms her own modern family, a mixture of her actual relatives, her lovers, and some of her friends and their lovers.
Adams does not develop her next two characters, Peg and Cathy, as strongly as she does Lavinia and Megan. Peg is rich enough to impress even Lavinia; however, she is more overweight than Megan and marries the first man who has sex with her and knows her family has money. Peg moves to Texas, raises four children, and becomes active in the Civil Rights movement. She ultimately embraces her homosexuality and leaves her husband to move with her companion to open a shelter for homeless women in Georgia. Finally, Cathy is more of a stereotype than even Lavinia. Trapped by her Catholic upbringing, Cathy finds herself loving a priest, getting pregnant by him, and then hiding the truth from her family and friends. Cathy moves to San Francisco and raises her son with the help of her mother but without the son’s father. This novel is reminiscent of “girls’ stories” from the early twentieth century, in which friends take divergent paths through life. At the heart of Superior Women are issues of strength, style, and class. These superior women reveal their talents, weaknesses, desires, doubts, and passions through long years of association.
Other major works
Short fiction: Beautiful Girl, 1979; To See You Again, 1982; Molly’s Dog, 1983; Return Trips, 1985; After You’ve Gone, 1989; The Last Lovely City: Stories, 1999; The Stories of Alice Adams, 2002.
Nonfiction: Mexico: Some Travels and Some Travelers There, 1990.
Blades, Larry T. “Order and Chaos in Alice Adams’ Rich Rewards.” Critique 27, no. 4 (Summer, 1986): 187- 195.
Herman, Barbara A. “Alice Adams.” In Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South: A Bio-bibliographical Source book, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert A. Bain. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Kerrison, Catherine. Claiming the Pen: Women and Intellectual Life in the Early American South. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006.