Superior Women’s Novels: Alice Adams’s Listening to Billie & Superior Women

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Alice Adams

In the late twentieth century, the writer Alice Adams was well-respected and widely reviewed. Her short stories were published in The New Yorker and she published 11 novels.  I read her books as they came out and loved them,  but regarded them as read-and-weed books.

Perhaps many of us undervalued Adams’ work.

How to evaluate Adams?  I recently reread two of her novels, Listening to Billie (1975) and Superior Women (1984).  They are not quite classics, but are superior women’s novels.  I clearly see the influence of Doris Lessing, Mary McCarthy, and Alison Lurie.  I admire her subtle interweaving of brilliant insights into the complex framework of her compelling narratives.

listening to billie alice adams 41odFTamZwLThese elegantly-written “middlebrow” novels are the kind of books reissued  by Virago and Persephone. Plot does not define them so much as intelligence, though the plots are absorbing.   In Listening to Billie, the heroine, Eliza, a poet, the daughter of a selfish, eccentric nonfiction writer, is a Billie Holiday fan. She marries her boyfriend, Evan, a professor, after she gets pregnant.  Evan turns out to be a very unhappy homosexual.  He stalks a student, the oblivious Reed Ashford, the most beautiful boy he has ever seen, and when he realizes he can never have him, he commits suicide.  Eliza does not allow her life to be ruined:  she moves to San Francisco and establishes a fulfilling life with her daughter. She works part- time as a secretary and begins to sell her poetry to magazines like the Atlantic.    She is a very kind character and a good friend:  I would love to know her.  Oddly, she meets Reed Ashford in San Francisco, and they are instantly attracted, two beautiful blondes.  They have an affair, which is perfect while it lasts.

I see the influence of Doris Lessing in the following passage.  Like Lessing’s heroines, Eliza asks herself questions about her identity during a sexual affair.  What will she wear to meet her lover tonight?

It was not simply the rare warm weather that had created a problem; after all, she had some cotton clothes. It was rather that she was not sure, that day, how to dress—who to be. She would go downtown, she thought; would perhaps buy something to wear tonight, but as what person would she go downtown, in what persona? As an upper-middle-class white woman in her thirties (Miriam’s friend), or as a young poet “in love”? And what could she possibly buy, what could she wear with Reed Ashford? For the moment, she settled on an old cotton dress in which she would be comfortable, if not invisible, which was what (and why?) she had at last understood that she would like to be today.

Listening to Billie is a well-crafted novel, but not a classic.

Alice Adams Superior Women 41xTsBHIaNLNor is Superior Women, thought it is a more satisfying novel. This riveting story of forty years in the lives of five women who meet at Radcliffe in 1943  is reminiscent of  Mary McCarthy’s The Group.  But  Adams, a graduate of Radcliffe, spends much more time detailing the joys of college.

The central character,Megan, the sexy daughter of a junk shop owner and a  car hop in California, falls in love with New England and her clique of close friends. She has sex with affable George Wharton, and  is shocked when he marries someone else.  It had not occurred to her that she was not good enough for a man with old money.  She  discovers that men love to make love to her but don’t want to marry her.  Fortunately, she begins to read Henry James,  moves to New York, where she has always wanted to live, and works first in publishing and then as a literary agent.  Much as she loves literature, however, work proves disappointing. After her publishing house gets gobbled up by a corporation,  she becomes a partner at aliterary  agency.  She works with  the writers and editors while the firm’s founder Barbara does the contracts.

One of their most important clients is a Gothic novelist .  Megan chats with her on the phone when she has a crisis.

And Jane Anne Johns, a Gothic novelist, calms down. She loves to talk to Megan. She is a very nice, now very old woman, with blue rinsed hair and a French château in Miami. She is given to diamonds and orchids and white mink coats. She is a great success. Her novels are consummate trash, a fact Megan tries not to think about; she is thankful that she does not have to read them, she only sells them, serialized, to magazines.

But the job is high-pressure:  constant parties Megan has to attend to schmooze with publishers, and readings to support her authors.  Eventually, she burns out.  She is happily in love with Henry Stuyvesant, a radical professor at the University of North Carolina, and sometimes wonders what will happen if they get married. Would she move to North Carolina?

As she thinks this, Megan is stricken with a vast distaste for the work that she does, in New York: all those nonbooks decked out for marketing. So much execrable prose. The sheer unreality of it all.

superior women adams knopf 9780394536323-usAll the idealism and brilliance in college, and this is where it goes.

But the other women in the group fare less well than Megan.   Lavinia, rich, beautiful, and prejudiced against Jews and blacks, is a fan of Proust who compares herself to Madame Guermantes.  Like Megan, she has trouble enticing men to fall in love with her.  She marries for money and position, and it turns out to be a terrible mistake:  she cannot have orgasms with her husband.  Her whole life centers on occasional affairs.  And she hates Megan.

The others also have problems.  Cathy, a devout Catholic, gets pregnant by a priest.   Peg also gets pregnant, dislikes her husband, and has five children and a nervous breakdown. The fifth woman, Janet, a Jew, is only Megan’s friend:  the others did not socialize with her.

But all of the women except Lavinia eventually make their way in the world.  And hatred is the only thing holding her back.

10 thoughts on “Superior Women’s Novels: Alice Adams’s Listening to Billie & Superior Women

  1. If there is one writer who is due for a major revival, it is Alice Adams. I thought that ‘Listening to Billie’ was a wonderful novel with its evocations of NYC and Billie Holiday live concerts. I read a lot of Alice Adams but not Superior Women as the title put me off somewhat. ‘Listening to Billie’ was my first and still my favorite.
    Still she was mainly famous for her short stories, and I’ve read and admired many of her collections.


    • I was shocked to find her novels are out of print. Well, they’re in ebooks but only the stories are available in a collection. It’s very strange that these popular AND literary books aren’t around now. I don’t understand the book business!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t believe she’s out of print. I also read each one as they came out. Maybe time for a re-reading as I really liked them.


  3. That’s a great appreciation of a fine writer. An Alice Adams revival is in the works. “Understanding Alice Adams” by Bryant Mangum was just published; Collected Stories will be reissued by Knopf later this year with an introduction by Adams’s editor, Victoria Wilson; and a full-length biography of Alice Adams by Carol Sklenicka will be published by Scribner in November 2019.


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