First impressions: A diva in white

(In which we give our first impressions of Alice Adams, three chapters in)

Monica: Ok, the first things first, what is up with daddy dearest?  Hack, hack, hacking on heaven’s door, the poor man. I have a feeling he will be dying soon… or heading to some untimely crazy end. Same with that sallow, saggy little brother we briefly meet lagging about the kitchen table like a schlump. And poor, naggy mommy who wants more money to set her daughter up right. I have a feeling this is a tragedy in the making… can see it coming a mile away.

And then Alice… oh, Alice. Pretty but not TOO pretty. But boy, does she make up for it with her personality. And, apparently, she has just ABSOLUTELY lovely hands (does that mean something different in the early 1900s? I don’t know). No, I’m being mean. They are expressive, lovely, and extension of herself. I do, at this moment though, find her a bit tiresome. Selfish…but what girl in the bloom of her youth and just desperate for male attention doesn’t go a bit narcissist?

Tom: Considering how gently amusing the opening chapters are, I’m surprised you focused so much on impending death, you morbid soul! And if anybody is going to die, it’s going to be Alice. Perhaps they’ll bump off daddy-dearest and the sallow son too, just so Alice and mumsy have to figure out how to survive as two women alone. However, whenever I encounter any character that is so upbeat and has ambitious plans for life (like Alice), I inwardly prepare myself for them to suffer a soul-shattering setback – in all probability ignominious death.

Our titular heroine is so sprightly she can only be heading for disaster. It feels a bit formulaic, a very deliberate setting up of bowling pins so they can be knocked down later. While I may be completely wrong on this point, I am already concerned that Boothy boy is going to trot out a familiar bag of tricks.

On the other hand, I’m really enjoying the breezy elegance of the writing. Mr. Tarkington certainly has a light touch and made me chortle indulgently right from the get-go.

The majority of the Adams family seems to be rather prone to farcical melancholia (Mrs. Adams is the most affected by this malady; she’s definitely one of those people who sigh audibly right into your ear until you finally give in and ask what’s wrong). This of course makes you want to root for the cheerful Alice, a bright presence lighting up the familial gloom of father, mother and brother.

I’m getting a bit of an Edith Wharton vibe, what with the protagonist being a woman struggling for social ascension and trying to make her own road to happiness when the men hold all the cards – lest we forget, this is written at a time before women’s suffrage. It doesn’t scale the social heights of The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth – baronesses, heiresses and New York socialites are replaced with the comely daughters of local factory owners – but from the first few pages I’m getting the distinct feeling that the same issues are at play.

Monica: There is a light touch to the surface of Booth’s writing, but also odd dark undertones… what can I say? The man is an excellent observer of the subtle human gestures we make as we’re going about our daily lives. Take chapter 3. The way Alice walks as she heads over to see her “dear friend” Mildred (who’s definitely not going to be a dear friend… I have a feeling…. or maybe she’ll die as well. who knows? ) But anyway, I love Alice’s little, brief encounters as she is walking. They are ones that anyone would have, and probably last only minutes, seconds even. And yet, the way Boothy-boy observes actions and reactions. An appreciating eye from a portly middle-aged stroller lifts Alice to heady heights, she giddy with her female power. The disapproving eye of an elder, powerful woman shrinks her and makes her question her outfit and very being. Then the appreciating slowing of a suitable male again cheerfully sets her on her way.  It’s amazing how this tiny tableau becomes a set piece for an entire chapter!

Tom: I completely agree with you about chapter 3: I love the description of Alice Adams twirling her cane as she sashays down the high street to the mixed reception of the town folk. You can almost see Tarkington’s eyes glittering with satirical delight. It also neatly depicts Alice Adams as torn between big-city ideas/fashions/dreams and small-town realities/mindsets.

“She had seen in several magazines pictures of ladies with canes, and on that account she had bought this one, never questioning that fashion is recognized, even in the provinces, as soon as beheld. On the contrary, these staring women obviously failed to realize that what they were being shown was not an eccentric outburst, but the bright harbinger of an illustrious mode.”


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