Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Pulitzer Project: Alice Adams

It's confession time. I knew that sooner or later I'd hit books I could not read, and this turned out to be one. Alice Adams won in 1922, garnering a second Pulitzer for its author, Booth Tarkington. Tarkington was an immensely popular author, and no doubt this novel struck some sort of chord with the American public at the time -- but I could not get into it.

The novel centers on its title character, Alice Adams. Alice is the spoiled and oblivious daughter of a middle class businessman, a man who apparently held some sort of lower middle management position but who is bedridden with an unspecified health problem when the book opens. The family has been living just slightly above its means, with both Alice and her mother behaving as though they're part of the wealthy upper class when they're not. Tarkington does a nice job of describing their house with its less than smart decor and vaguely shabby atmosphere. Alice goes to parties where she clearly does not belong -- the other young women she persists in telling her brother are her "most intimate friends" ignore her, the young men don't ask her to dance, her dress is out of style just enough to mark her as poor. She was friends with many of the young people at the dances when they were all still in high school, but now that they've entered their early 20s she no longer has anything in common with them. Still, she refuses to admit that her life is not turning out the way she thought it would.

The dance where Alice is trying desperately to act as though she belonged and that she's having a good time is the point where I gave up. As far as I could tell by skimming the remaining chapters, the book then proceeds to describe the family's continued slide down the social ladder: by the time the book ends, her father's dream of starting his own glue factory has been crushed, Alice's brother narrowly escapes being charged with criminal embezzlement, the family is taking in boarders, and Alice is about to start secretarial school and actually learn a trade because she's been unable to snag a husband. It's one piece of bad news after another.

I'm not sure why I found myself disliking the book as much as I did. When I looked it up on Amazon there were rave reviews. Some readers loved it -- they found the character of Alice to be "plucky." I thought she was pathetic and delusional. Here's hoping the next book on the list, Willa Cather's One of Ours, turns out to be a little more readable.


  1. jeez, what a depressing book...willa cather writes some great books, that one i haven't read..

  2. Well, it is unintentionally funny in places. After all, Alice's father's version of the American dream is to start his own glue factory.

  3. Dang it. Well, I'm glad you covered it anyway. I'm embarrassed to admit, though, that I kept thinking as I read this - didn't they make a movie of this book and didn't it star Catherine Hepburn?

  4. It's supposedly one of Hepburn's best early films. Never having seen it (and now having no desire to ever see it based on my reaction to the book) I wouldn't know.

  5. Judging by your excellent review. I have to say pathetic as well. But I'm unsure that's all her fault.

    A glue factory heiress? LMAO!!!

    If only her Dad would have had more sticktoitivness!:)

  6. I read "One of Ours" and it's wonderful! I love Willa Cather but I really thought I wouldn't care for a story like "One of Ours", but the bookstore lady said it was good. She was right. I'll be interested to see what you think of it.

  7. If WIlla Cather's "One of Ours" is even close to "My Antonia", it should be a good read.

    I guess Booth underwhelmed me also. I remember reading something of his, but cannot remember the title or what it was about.

  8. Some styles and stories just don't age well. I agree that you'll like the Willa Cather better.


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