Second Chances by Alice Adams

Alice Adams (1926-1999) is a neglected American writer.  In the 20th century her novels and short story collections were reviewed on every book page and her graceful short stories were published in The New Yorker.  All of us looked forward to the latest Adams:  we felt she was writing about our lives.  Although Adams’ books are not quite classics, they are excellent reads about women’s lives and relationships.  Many are set in San Francisco, her adopted hometown.

I recently came across my review of Adams’s novel Second Chances in 1988 for The San Francisco Review of Books, an excellent literary periodical published from 1975 to 1997.  Because Adams’ graceful novel is about aging characters, I am actually more interested in it now:  there are not enough novels about aging women.

And so her is my old review of Second Chances.  Enjoy.

Alice Adams has a talent for directness. Her narratives speed along, driven by the conversational rhythms of intimate gossip.  Her characters are chatty, but they also muse privately on the complexity of sexual relationships. They wonder if being “in love” is simply a matter of “healthy tissues rubbing against each other,” and worry that sexual encounters in old age will “form a repetition of adolescence.” In her new novel, Second Chances,  Adams wields a fine control over her conversational style and examines the chances and coincidences that govern the lives of a large cast of characters over a period of forty years.

Ravaged by illness, grieved by the deaths of spouses and friends, a group of aging men and women in northern California are skeptical about their ability to shape new lives for themselves. Dudley and Edward, two endearingly gossipy writers, discuss the “silliness” of their friend Celeste, who has been behaving strangely since the death of her husband Charles. She claims she is seeing a younger man, but Dudley and Edward doubt his existence. They speculate that Celeste is merely “acting out”–keeping busy so as not to brood over Charles. “The point is,” Edward decides, “the odd forms of her busyness. Some people just do needlepoint.”

In Second Chances, the “odd forms of busyness” become increasingly apparent. In the face of death, all make subtle adjustments and compromises. Celeste hovers near the phone to receive her beau’s infrequent calls; Dudley plays down her successful writing career to her husband Sam, once a successful artist; Edward writes few poems after his lover’s emergence as a gay activist; and unmarried Polly, having survived cancer, relives the excitement of the Spanish Civil War by secret nighttime forays to deliver anonymous gifts to poor Hispanic families.

Alice Adams (1926-1999)

Adams packs small, intimate moments with meaning, and her short, colorful scenes–a lunch, a dinner, an afternoon spent sorting old clothes–become emblematic of the characters’ attitudes toward thwarted love and friendship. In “The Past,” a four-chapter segment consisting of brief vignettes, Adams charts the gradual interweaving of the friends’ lives. In one scene we see Dudley, dazed after a night with Sam, struggling to behave normally at lunch with Celeste, despite her scattered thoughts. In another scene, Edward, having just met a new man, nervously tries to ascertain his sexual orientation. Later we see Celeste cleaning out her closet before here wedding to Charles, snapping at Polly, her least romantic friend who considers love a “disease” since her own long-ago affair with Charles.

Indeed, sex and disease, or sex and death, are closely linked in this moving, funny novel. Sexual love proves a mixed blessing to Adams’s characters, enhancing their creativity but also inflicting sorrow. Only the intrusion of cancer and AIDS finally resolves the very different lovers’ sexual dramas. But second chances do befall the survivors in fitting–if unexpected–ways.

6 thoughts on “Second Chances by Alice Adams

    • Yes, it is true that many are told in flashback. I recently read a brilliant one by Mary Gordon, There Your Heart Lies, which goes back and forth between a woman’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War and her experiences in old age. It is stunning, and having both points of view makes it more interesting.

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  1. Does Jane Gardam make it across the Atlantic? She has focused her writing on whatever age she happens to be at the time and her Old Filth Trilogy isn’t about people in retirement, and the second, The Man in the Wooden Hat, specifically told from the point of view of a woman’s. If you haven’t read them then all three are excellent and I think you would really enjoy them.

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