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by Alice Adams

Pub Date: Jan. 5th, 1977
Publisher: Knopf

Alice Adams—of The New Yorker, of Families and Survivors (1975)—is a lovely writer, supremely economical and blessed with a Mozartean sense of voice and rhythm. But blond, bovine (temperamentally if not quite physically) Eliza Hamilton Quarles is less than lovely company as we bear with her through twenty inconclusive years of family, friends, and lovers. Her almost-rew professor-husband kills himself, having fallen hard for a student—"The most beautiful boy in the world." Her much younger sister Daria is fetchingly unstable, cosmopolitan by marriage, miscarriage-prone. Her established-writer mother in Maine isn't terribly maternal. Her daughter is pure California and recklessly off the pill ("And so I'll have the baby in April—isn't that neat?"). And her lovers: movie-man Harry, a brusque, comfortable dear of a man; and, believe-it-or-not (you won't), "The most beautiful boy in the world," the very one, who turns up by chance in both Eliza's and Daria's beds before following Eliza's husband down the path of self-destruction. And Eliza herself? She lives in San Francisco, she writes poems with more and more confidence, her moments and moods are described with finesse, but her growth is the only thing that could possibly bring these time-leap episodes together, and that, with Adams as a smart but surfacy omniscient narrator, has to be taken on faith. What remains is the uncompelling but readable stuff of at least a half-dozen fine short stories (especially the fierce, short girl and the shambling black girl whom Eliza encounters and cares about through her part-time job)—and soap opera. Of the very highest class imaginable, to be sure, but soap opera nevertheless. (The title refers to Billie Holliday, one—among many—of Eliza's preoccupations that doesn't quite ring true.)