Light Reading Will Save Your Life: Alice Adams’ “Caroline’s Daughters” & Other Bookish Notes

Last week I hurt my neck and shoulder while reading an 800-page book in bed. After aggravating the pain with what I’d thought were therapeutic exercises, I rested, lounged, read shorter books, and lost myself in light reading.

I am cured! Light reading will save your life. Mind you, these are literary light reads.  Over the weekend I read David Lodge’s comic novel The British Museum Is Falling Down, and then I turned to Caroline’s Daughters, a brilliant, entertaining novel by Alice Adams.

Alice Adams was a well-known, popular San Francisco writer (1926-1999) whose fiction was sometimes published in The New Yorker.  Despite her graceful writing and skillful treatment of serious themes, her books were marketed (you can tell by the covers) to the women’s fiction ghetto. In my opinion, they are literary “pop” fiction, one of my favorite genres (something for everybody). What I find on rereading is great intelligence, a clarity of style, and evocative descriptions of the gentrified neighborhoods and fluidity of class in San Francisco in the ’80’s.

Adams’s Caroline’s Daughters is one of my favorites, a family saga I find unputdownable. Caroline, age 65, wants some distance from her five daughters, one in her 40s, three in their thirties, and the youngest in her twenties. Adams deftly switches the women’s point-of-views from chapter to chapter:  some of the sisters look and sound alike, but they have little in common except innate sexiness. (Adams often uses the word “sexy,” and their sexual relationships are complicated.)

Caroline, who has been married thrice, and is finally happy in her third  marriage, would love to hear less about her daughters’ lives. At the beginning of the novel, she and Ralph have returned to San Francisco after five years in Portugal–a kind of sabbatical to get away from the family. Once  they are home, the family is reunited by a web of friendship, gossip, rivalry, and near-incestous relationships with each other’s men. It wearies Caroline, who just wants to work in her garden, but she continues to nurture.

Sage, 40, is an unsuccessful artist and, in her half-sisters’ view, a throwback to the 1960’s. Sage’s husband, a too-handsome carpenter, is unfaithful and enjoys her failure. But the more badly he behaves, the better her work gets.  Luck can change!

Fiona, a restaurant owner in her thirties, is restless and angry as she watches the popularity of her restaurant fade and has no meaningful relationship with a man.  Jill, 31, is a greedy lawyer-stockbroker with a secret; Liza, 35, is happily married to a psychiatrist and sexually satisfied, but is also a bored mother of three children who wants time to write.   Portia, the youngest, is a bit of an oddball, who house-sits for a living.

This  would be the stuff of soap opera in lesser hands, but  Adams makes it believable, and, in fact you may recognize some of these problems if  you are in your thirties (a challenging time) or older (when it sometimes, though not always, gets better).

Gorgeous writing and mesmerizing plot–some characters are sympathetic, others are not, and you’ll love some, be appalled by others.

THE N.B. COLUMN. Last week I lamented the cancellation of the N.B. column by J.C. (James Campbell) at the TLS. It turns out that N.B. is still there, though by a new columnist, M.C.   J.C. has an inimitable voice, but I also enjoyed M.C.’s column this week: he/she (I’m thinking she, but why?) talks about the Virginia Woolf newsletter, Bloomsbury, and reactions to the Booker Prize shortlist. J.C. wrote the N.B. column for 22 years.

AT THE BAFFLER, Michael Friedrich reviews two books about the meaning of the junk we collect”: Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America by Wendy A. Woolson, and Heart of Junk, a novel  by Luke Geddes. Has anybody read either of these? I’m fascinated by junk and collections, and am thinking about trying one of these books.

8 thoughts on “Light Reading Will Save Your Life: Alice Adams’ “Caroline’s Daughters” & Other Bookish Notes”

  1. According to the latest Private Eye – it doesn’t seem to be on its website yet – the TLS is suffering from a drastic cut in size and the number of employees under its new editor to save money , with James Campbell one of the victims.

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    1. Oh dear, I am sorry to hear that. Very demoralizing. I would imagine a lot of people read him, because he is also a great critic. I enjoyed his essay on The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Maybe he can collect his N.B. columns (or parts of them?) in a book?

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