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by Alice Adams

Pub Date: Nov. 12th, 2002
ISBN: 0-375-41285-9
Publisher: Knopf

The unbridgeable distances between even perfectly compatible people, and the difficulty of sustaining meaningful relationships are the dominant themes of this retrospective collection of 53 stories by the late (1926–99) author (After the War, 2000, etc.).

The typical Adams character is a woman alone, approaching or entering middle age, alternately tormented or sustained by memories of things or people loved and lost. It sounds like a formula for women’s magazine fiction, and at her weakest (too often in the later of her five published collections), Adams comes across as a wittier, more stylish purveyor of otherwise conventional anatomies of suburban marriage, adultery, divorce, and lingering regret. But she’s often very much better than this—especially when family dynamics edge out self-absorption, as in “The Swastika on Our Door,” about a German-American woman’s observation of the strange symbiotic bonding of her small-minded husband and his moribund brother, and “Roses, Rhododendron” (arguably her finest piece), in which a Boston girl living in the South falls in love with a seemingly perfect, in fact dangerously unstable, family. Stories like these, which stretch her range, tend to disguise a bland style almost devoid of figurative language or other verbal originality. Read more than two or three of her stories at a time, and their similarities become glaring. Still, stunning little successes keep cropping up: the Dorothy Parker–like look at a former “Beautiful Girl,” still poised and confident despite creeping middle age and alcoholism; the rich characterization of a morose commuter repeatedly drawn to the wrong bus, and the seductive presences of its “Greyhound People”; the ambitious later stories “Related Histories” and “Truth or Consequences” and perhaps a dozen or so others.

Very uneven, then, but never less than readable and engaging. Adams’s many admirers will welcome this generous display of her work.