Tuesday, October 8, 2013

book review: alice adams by booth tarkington

i wished after reading alice adams that my younger self had discovered it, ideally the version of me who was besotted with pride & prejudice and identified with the impudent, winsome miss elizabeth bennet. i doubt the young maureen would have identified with alice adams at first but it's hard not to see the parallels between elizabeth and alice: both have deep affection for their fathers, and somewhat difficult relationships with their simpering, preening mothers. both have siblings that embarrass them and make their lives difficult. and both novels feature cringe-worthy scenes of social distress. both girls are pretty; both girls are relatively poor in relation to the class of people with whom they associate. we all know how elizabeth's story ends; my heart sang each time i read the ending of pride & prejudice for many years. it wasn't just happiness for elizabeth that i was feeling -- the novel assured the young maureen that if you stayed true to yourself you would be rewarded in time. a reading of alice adams at just that point might have tamped my optimism in that quarter somewhat and better prepared me for my future.

alice adams lives in an age between me and elizabeth bennet. i live in a culture that aspires to meritocracy where miss bennet's was severely stratified and class rules were firmly established. alice adams lives in an era that shows a transition point between these two societies. the novel is set after the first world war and before the great depression. it is an era of change, where horse and wagon is being replaced by the early automobile, where local robber barons have firmly established their wealth and watched those with lesser acumen assist them, struggle along, or be subsumed. alice adams is the daughter of a lesser businessman in the employ of the "great J.A. Lamb" the local leading light. (i would love to discuss this character with somebody who's read this novel. he plays a small but pivotal role and i am fascinated by what he represents here... is lamb benevolent? do i doubt him because of my modern sensibility?)

alice, feted in her first bloom, socialized with the "better" part of society but now, at twenty-three, she is already losing her social status, being cut from acquaintance, partly because her family never got as rich as the others, partly because she has not made an advantageous marriage, she is perceived as grasping to those who have it all, and alice is only just beginning to perceive she has never had enough. still, she wrangles an invitation to one last ball, and there she meets a young man, arthur russell, apparently affianced to the giver of the ball, his cousin mildred palmer, in the time-tested fashion of bringing two families and their fortunes even closer together. but mr. russell isn't as sure of his engagement as the rest of society is, and he begins to call on miss adams, sitting outside her house on the porch. and as we know, two attractive young people sitting under the stars and talking stuff and nonsense can't help but be romantical.*

i won't relate any more of the plot turns in alice adams -- there is certainly more to the novel that readers should discover for themselves. she does not face a tragic end, even if she does not get the happily ever after that cinderbennet gets. rather, alice adams gets to become a modern girl, one who has to face up to her own future and her own survival. she has overcome her own pride & prejudice and comes to find that the world might still have brightness to it despite all the things she lacks. the novel ends in a way that solidifies its importance. this book is a tonic to peel away romantic illusions and face a little reality.

a few words as to why i gave this novel only four stars: true to the other tarkington books i've read, there is a peppering of racism here. i would suggest that in the case of this novel, it's plays better than it does in the unfortunate penrod, which not only reflected the racism of the age and failed to contribute to the plot of the novel, but also needlessly wedged in racism wherever possible -- feel free to check out that review if you require more detail: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... here at least, we find alice's brother walter (who could very well be an older version of penrod) loves jazz, and as a consequence of that, and his penchant for shooting craps, socializes with black people and respects them even if he uses racially provocative epithets to describe them. the other people who are horrified by these associations are just plain racist in that smug condescending way, that was unchallenged in that era. still, it bears remembering that tarking probably did mean for his readers to respect walter's character even if he is perhaps more sympathetic to modern eyes, and i can't even get started on the other gross portrayals of serving staff: as usual i think tarkington has done both his writing and humanity a disservice by indulging in slur.

beyond the racism is *my disinterest in the romance between alice and russell. i didn't like her talk when she was wooing and he just seemed like a pretty moron. every conversation they had i thought, how can either of them imagine wanting to spend another moment together, let alone another hour having a stupid conversation like this? this romance didn't have the interest tarkington imbued into his other celebrated novel, the magnificent ambersons. given the necessity of this connection to the book, i wish it had sparked more. still, i think this is a very instructive novel, and one i will definitely prescribe as a romantic palliative in future. :)

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This work by Maureen de Sousa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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