In a small Midwestern town in the wake of World War I, Alice Adams delightedly finds herself being pursued by Arthur Russell, a gentleman of a higher social class in life. Desperate to keep her family’s lower-middle-class status a secret, she and her parents concoct various schemes to keep their family afloat. Though the realities of her situation eventually reveal themselves and her relationship with Arthur fizzles, Alice’s acceptance of this leads her to seek out work to support her family with an admirable resiliency. An enchanting and authentic tale of a family’s aspirations to seek more out of life, Alice Adams reveals the strength of the human spirit and its incredible ability to evolve.
The second of the two Tarkington novels to win a Pulitzer, I enjoyed Alice Adams much more than The Magnificent Ambersons. First of all, the main character was not a stuck up, spoiled, rich brat. Second of all, Alice Adams is less racist. There are still some racial stereotypes in the book, but far fewer, and far less exaggerated than the ones found in his previous Pulitzer Prize winner. But mostly, I found the story more engrossing than The Magnificent Ambersons.
Alice Adams is slowly coming to the realization that the upper class girls who used to invite her to dances and dinners were never her friends. In her younger teenage years, she had been interesting enough to have all the popular boys in town over to her house, and thus found herself more popular among the girls, but while most of them went off to school, the Adams family did not have enough money to send Alice anywhere. And so she finds herself with increasingly fewer prospects, still hoping for some miracle to come along and sweep her off her feet.
Instead of being a book about a woman who is becoming more and more desperate to define herself by a man, however, Alice Adams is about a woman who struggles and begins to come to terms with herself in a changing society. Building on many of the themes of progress that Tarkington introduced in The Magnificent Ambersons, Alice finds herself in a town that is steadily growing larger, until there are too many people in the town to keep track of, and it become increasingly easier for Alice, stuck in the widening middle class, to become almost invisible. Meanwhile, her mother continues to pressure her father into leaving the job he’s held for the past few decades and start up a glue factory with a formula that he only has a tenuous right to, in the hopes of increasing their position in the town, and Alice’s hopes for a suitor.
Old wealth once again comes into conflict with invention and progress, but in an almost opposite manner. Instead of the inventors becoming the new millionaires in the town, we find ourselves several years down the road from Tarkington’s previous book, and the new wealth is in charge. The upper class families own factories and companies and industries, instead of being defined by old family wealth. But we see all this from the eyes of the middle class, and through Alice and her mother, who want a piece of that upward mobility that they’ve seen propel families up in society in the last few years.
Alice thinks, for a while, that this upward mobility will come in the form of Arthur Russell, a rich newcomer who is enamored with Alice early on. But under the impression that wealth begets wealth, Alice begins to suggest and imply and weave a tapestry of exaggeration in terms of her own family’s wealth, in the hopes of securing some sort of future with Russell. Of course, all these machinations eventually come falling down, and Alice finds herself in the midst of it.
It’s a funny, touching, and interesting novel. Tarkington tracks the growth and maturity of Alice from when she still thinks of herself as good friends with the upper society girls, even though there is plenty of evidence against the fact, through her immature ploys to win over Russell, into her realization that those plots are becoming increasing more elaborate and unstable, and into a maturity and acceptance of her reality.
Something like this always happened, it seemed; she was continually making these illuminations, all gay with gildings and colourings; and then as soon as anybody else so much as glanced at them–even her father, who loved her–the pretty designs were stricken with a desolating pallor. ‘Is this life?’ Alice wondered, not doubting that the question was original and all her own. ‘Is it life to spend your time imagining things that aren’t so, and never will be? Beautiful things happen to other people; why should I be the only one they never can happen to?’
Why you should read it:
It’s a bit of a comedy of errors set in 1920s America, full of humorous moments and striking societal critiques.
Currently reading: One of Ours by Willa Cather