Alice Adams is by Booth Tarkington, who also wrote The Magnificent Ambersons (1919), which I really didn’t like. So, needless to say, I was a little miffed that he won twice in three years and I wasn’t looking forward to reading this. But I tried to keep an open mind. I still didn’t love it, but I think I liked it better than The Magnificent Ambersons. Yes, “I think” I did. I realize as a book reviewer I should be less ambiguous, but I really had mixed feelings about the book. I think the edition of the book I was reading put me off a bit – the early Pulitzers have been really hard to find, so this one was a “digital reprint”. You know, one of those crappy versions that look like someone printed it on their home inkjet printer. And the formatting is all wonky. Not fun to read. As a bibliophile in the true sense of the word, this ugly book pained me. But on to the substance of the book.
Alice Adams is, above all, a girl who knows how to put on a show. As the book begins, you get the impression she comes from a family of means. But that’s just Tarkington putting on the same kind of show that Alice does. The Adams are not wealthy. Early in his career Mr. Adams had a brief chance at making something of himself, and the family made contact with the edge of “Society”. Since that time, Mrs. Adams and now Alice have been trying to pretend that they fit into Society. Alice is a charming girl and her charm helped foster that illusion for a time. But now things are falling apart. The family doesn’t even have enough money for a taxi to take Alice to the opening party. And things only get worse.
Alice is charming, but she’s not particularly likeable. I found her somewhat annoying. But Tarkington does a good job of showing us her vulnerabilities, and that redeems her. At the opening party she goes through endless feints and charades to hide the fact that no one is talking to her or asking her to dance. It’s painful to watch and it makes you feel for her. From that point on, you may think she’s annoying but you can’t help but be on her side. Unfortunately, Alice’s lies and her mother’s greed bring nothing but trouble, so being on her side is a sad place to be.
The characters are developed and yet I had a constant feeling that we were only skimming the surface. The story never seemed to be personal enough and the characters never seemed quite multifaceted enough to be realistic. The book was readable but I wouldn’t recommend it.