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.

Dating in Alice Adams’s Superior Women & Tolstoy’s War & Peace

barbie queen of the prom 859b73499fc1bc9866aebc53112bb08cI often think of Barbie Queen of the Prom when I think of dating. In this Monopoly-like 1961 board game, you roll the dice to acquire, among other things, a date to the prom.  The possible dates are Ken, Bob, Tom, and Poindexter (pictured left).  Needless to say, Poindexter is the geek. Cards give you directions like:  “YOU ARE NOT READY WHEN HE CALLS. MISS 1 TURN.”

But the game is much more fun than dating.  Actual dating so often means getting stuck on a sailboat with a virtual stranger, or discovering he/she has no bookshelves.  Instead of “dating,” I hung out with bookish men I met at parties, at work, or in language classes.  Yes, I married one.

But would it work for Peg, the fat, plain character in a group of friends at Radcliffe in the 1940s in Alice Adams’s novel, Superior Women (1984)? This stunning  novel, reminiscent of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, follows a group of friends over four decades.  At Radcliffe, the maternal Peg plies her friends with cookies and tea and is much more intelligent than they think.    Lavinia, the beauty, is an aristocratic Southerner who wants total control:  she mourns a boyfriend who died in World War II, neglecting to say he dumped her before he shipped out. Plump, sexy Megan is irresistibly attractive to men, who tell her she is different because she likes sex (they don’t actually want to go on dates, though); Janet, a Jewish woman who criticizes Megan’s WASPy “technical virgin” friends, is in love with an  Irish Catholic whose  mother opposes the match.  Cathy, a smart Catholic, goes out with a flashily-dressed Catholic from Ohio (known as Flash by snobs) with whom she shares a taste for good steak.  Are they in love…?  Well…

You see Peg’s dilemma.

Alice Adams Superior Women 41xTsBHIaNLWhen her friends  learn Peg is going on a date with a Yale man she hasn’t seen since childhood, they humiliate her by helping her get ready.

Thus it works out that getting Peg ready for her date is a group project. With a variety of emotions that includes both genuine kindness and an incredulous condescension (Peg, on a date? what will he think when he sees her, no matter what she has on?), the three friends, her “best friends,” gather in her room; they watch and they make suggestions, helpful and otherwise. They make silly jokes. Megan and Cathy and Lavinia, all concentrated on poor Peg.

And not one of them has the slightest idea of what is going on in Peg’s mind. In close physical proximity to her, looking at her and talking, not one of them recognizes what is actually a serious anxiety attack; they do not feel Peg’s genuine panic.”

The Maude translation (Everyman)

The Maude translation (Everyman)

Adams, who graduated from high school at 15 and Radcliffe at 19, is very smart: the preparation-for-the-date scene is a homage to a scene in Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  In Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Princess  Mary,  a young, very kind, very plain  woman who lives in the country with her severe father, is excited because a suitor, Prince Anatole, is coming to meet her. Her  French companion, Mademoiselle Bourienne , and her pregnant sister-in-law, Princess Lise, help her prepare for the “date,: only to find that she actually looks worse in chic clothes and the new hairdo.  Here is a passage from the Maude translation.

It was not the dress, but the face and whole figure of Princess Mary that was not pretty, but neither Mademoiselle Bourienne nor the little princess felt this; they still thought that if a blue ribbon were placed in the hair, the hair combed up, and the blue scarf arranged lower on the best maroon dress, and so on, all would be well. They forgot that the frightened face and the figure could not be altered, and that however they might change the setting and adornment of that face, it would still remain piteous and plain. After two or three changes to which Princess Mary meekly submitted, just as her hair had been arranged on the top of her head (a style that quite altered and spoiled her looks) and she had put on a maroon dress with a pale-blue scarf, the little princess walked twice round her,

In neither Peg’s nor Mary’s case, does the date go well.  In Superior Women, the plain, red-faced Yale man, Cameron, gets drunk and almost rapes Peg, who fortunately is strong enough to shove him off her.   In War and Peace, Princess Mary is very shy and stilted, but Anatole will marry her for her money. But the next day, but after finding him making out with Mademoiselle Bourienne, she turns down the proposal.

Whether it is the nineteenth century or now, dating can be grueling.