The Stories of Alice Adams
Alice Adams
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The Stories of Alice Adams
Alice Adams
624 pages
November 2002
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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If you love literature or have taken at least one course in creative writing, or if you are fascinated by the genre of short stories, this collection is for you. Alice Adams, who died in 1999, was a master at the short-story craft. Here she spins a story in few words -- of singular moments in time in the lives of women. Quickly and crisply, she underlines one memory, one incident or that brief flash of realization that these women in fifty-three stories experience.

An astute, intuitive author, Adams has the ability to zero in with tenderness on emotions that every women can relate to, like falling in love, recalling a loss, or simply remembering, say, a summer as a college student in Paris. These deftly created stories are sometimes haunting, sometimes sentimental, and sometimes realistic but always moving.

The collected stories are a treasure because they capture the best of her works. These stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Atlantic Monthly, Cosmopolitan, Redbook and McCall. Some have also been included in twenty-three O’Henry Award Collections; Adams had the distinction of winning that first prize six times.

In "Verlie I Say Unto You," Adams draws a portrait of the two worlds people lived in --- the rich white folks, the Todds and their black maid, Verlie. Verlie "has always been with the Todds; that is how they put it to their friends. Of course that is not true. Actually she came to them about ten years ago before…what they meant was that they did not know much about her life before them and also (a more important meaning) they cannot imagine their life without her…"

Verlie has four children; her husband is a loser,who used to drink and beat her up. Ironically, Jessica Todd's husband, Tom, "the handsome, guiltily faithless, troubled professor," also cheats on his wife, which Verlie has deduced from the lipstick stains on his handkerchief. But, Verlie, thinks "not as much as Horace [her own husband] did. And she thinks that Tom is a little better" than most men: "He bosses his wife and children but he doesn’t hit them."

From Tom’s "point of view Verlie behaves like a Negro maid. She is somewhat lazy; she does as little cleaning as she can. She laughs at his jokes. She sometimes sneaks drinks from his liquor closet. He does not, of course, think of Verlie as a woman…he once sincerely (astoundingly) remarked that he could not imagine a sexual impulse towards a colored person." Verlie, "an exceptionally handsome woman, big and tall and strong," has a somewhat stiff rapport with the Todds' two children, the bright girl Avery and the small frightened boy Devlin, and with Jessica. Apart from Tom, Verlie strikes up a friendship with Clifton, a down-on-his-luck loner handyman who does occasional work for the family. Their low murmurs of conversation reach the Todds, who wonder what they are talking about.

When they need to break some terrible news to her about her Horace, they are taken aback at her "stiff and unreadable face." Later, Jessica is relieved to see tears rolling down her face when she is ironing. But Verlie is crying at the memories of her cruel husband, not because he is dead. The irony of the story is that Jessica and Verlie exist in parallel worlds but are adrift in the same issues of domestic life that all women are. They never think of reaching out to each other but if they ever did break that social barrier, they would realize exactly how much they have in common.

Adams uses irony, satire and sarcasm, as tools in ways that evoke the writings of Katherine Mansfield, who elevated the short story into a higher form of writing with her intense psychological analysis.

In the brilliantly done "Winter Rain," a woman shivering in the "final, unendurable weeks of winter" recalls with fondness and amusement the winter she spent in Paris, when she "was colder than ever…when it always rained, when everything broke down. That was the winter of strikes…and everyone struck. Metro, garbage, water, electricity, mail…" Then she thinks of her boyfriend, Bruno, and their intense romance, and of her relationship with the landlady she found so fascinating, Mme. Frenaye, a miserly woman who extracted a great deal of money from this "American student," renting her a room that was not exactly the warmest in the house. In the "warm and graceful flat" with "exquisite white Louis XVI chairs, a marvelous muted blue Persian rug, a mantel lined with marble above a fireplace in which a small fire blazed prettily," Mme. Frenaye was "a great goddess of a woman." In the end, the flat turned out to be inconvenient: it was far from her classes; away from Bruno, who used that as an excuse to fight; and far too expensive. The unkindest cut of it all, however, was the landlady's indifference and self-absorption about the loss of rent. Things also ended badly with Bruno. She left Paris without saying goodbye to either of them. Every winter she wonders if she can write to Madame now, but shealways decides to leave them to "in that year of my own history."

In "Ripped Off," an insecure woman who comes home to find her drawer pulled out of the dresser with its contents spilled out and the zebra skin rug her live-in boyfriend is fond of missing jumps to the conclusion that he has dumped her. But they have been robbed.

In "New Best Friends," about a couple who have relocated to a new town, the husband impulsively tells his wife in an alcohol-induced moment that her "new best friend" doesn't care about them.

"Beautiful Girl" begins with drunken, middle-aged former beauty sitting at the table in her slovenly kitchen waiting for an old college acquaintance to come for a visit.

In these very adult stories, there is little idealism, religion, or moral righteousness. The characters are always women who are professional achievers, who relish their freedom, and who are single, divorced, married, or involved with married men. They smoke, drink, travel, and think about sex and relationships without any inhibitions. They are strong, confident, and almost always searching for something, which in many cases remains elusive. But whatever they seek, they come across as totally alive and completely human.

In story after story, Adams captures people as they are and reveals the complexity and vulnerability of our hearts, our deepest fears, our yearning, our losses and the successes and perfection we crave for. She is a brilliant writer, and this collection is a testament to her work -- and it assures us of her immortality in American literature. Adams has also written eleven novels, including Careless Love (1966), Superior Women (1984), Caroline’s Daughters (1991), Almost Perfect (1993) and A Southern Exposure (1995) and its sequel, the posthumously published After the War (2000).

© 2003 by Sonia Chopra for Curled Up With a Good Book

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