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Obituary

Alice Adams; Novelist, Short-Story Writer

May 29, 1999|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alice Adams, whose acutely observed and elegantly written novels and short stories focused on women's struggles to find meaningful lives, died Thursday in San Francisco.

She was 72 and had been treated for heart problems a few days before her death, said Victoria Wilson, her editor for the last 25 years.

A native of Fredericksburg, Va., who moved to California in the 1950s, Adams wrote 10 novels, including the best-selling "Superior Women," and five collections of short stories, many of which first appeared in the New Yorker.

Knopf, which published nearly all her books, will release her last novel, "After the War," next year.

Adams specialized in contemporary American relationships, particularly among urbane, white middle- or upper-middle-class women. She often was described as an old-fashioned writer whose books and stories read well because of their underlying qualities: "the Dickensian coincidence, the solemn omniscience, the sense of lives destined to intertwine," Sheila Weller wrote in Ms. magazine.

"She was sort of a magician," Wilson said. "She managed to give you a dimensional quality of people and place and situation in a very, very condensed amount of space. You'd be reading three simple sentences and have the whole resonance of a person."

Adams was born in Virginia on Aug. 14, 1926, but grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C. Her father taught Spanish at the University of North Carolina and her mother struggled to be a writer.

She attended Radcliffe College, graduating when she was 19, and married a Harvard student, Mark Linenthal. They lived a while in Paris, then moved to San Francisco in 1948. The couple divorced in 1958, leaving Adams to raise their son, Peter, who survives her.

While struggling to earn a living through bookkeeping and secretarial work, Adams began to write seriously. Her first novel, "Careless Love," was published in 1966 to mixed reviews.

Almost 10 years passed before her next book came out. But "Families and Survivors," which followed two sisters through the the ups and downs of life over three decades, established her as a novelist.

Her breakthrough came in 1984 with "Superior Women," about the friendship of four young women forged during their years at Radcliffe. Often compared to Mary McCarthy's novel "The Group," which followed eight women through Vassar College in the 1930s, Adams' work traced the lives of her characters beyond graduation and showed how they were affected by political and social currents, from civil rights to Watergate.

John Updike, reviewing "Superior Women" in the New Yorker, wrote: "The novel . . . reads easily, even breathlessly; one looks forward, in the chain of coincidences, to the next encounter, knowing that this author always comes to the point from an unexpected angle, without fuss."

Many critics admired the compactness of Adams' writing, a talent that served her well in short stories. Critic Katha Pollitt, writing in the New York Times Book Review, said the typical Adams story "announces itself in the very first sentence as a thing of edgy wit and compressed narrative power."

Twenty-two of her stories appeared in O. Henry Awards collections, as well as in several volumes of "Best American Short Stories." Adams also was the recipient of an Academy and Institute Award in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Not all critics were enamored of her writing. Some, like Pollitt, felt that she relied too heavily on one type of "supremely sheltered, idle, unexamined" heroine. Others found fault with characters who too often lacked passion.

But many critics agreed that Adams' ability to evoke the inner struggles of a certain kind of well-educated, well-traveled woman and to capture a particular era or social milieu, such as San Francisco in the 1980s, was a major accomplishment.

Much of her fiction took place in San Francisco, her adopted hometown. Cyra McFadden, a Bay Area novelist and journalist who knew Adams for 20 years, said so many of her characters "lived here and inhabited their houses and their social circles so vividly [that] you half expected to meet them at the next dinner party you went to--the one given by the well-heeled, deeply unhappy hosts."

Her writing was not autobiographical per se, although a constant theme was the complexity of friendships. Novelist Diane Johnson, who knew Adams for 30 years, said that although she had a reputation for being difficult, Adams was a "powerful friend" who took nothing in relationships for granted.

Her 1988 novel "Second Chances," about a group of long-time friends facing the onset of their 60s and the stigma of old age, also reflected a personal preoccupation: Adams' realization that she was nearing 60 herself.

"I have the perception that people talk about old age in two ways," she told an interviewer for the New York Times Book Review when "Second Chances" was released. "One is to focus on the horrors of it, not that they should be underestimated, and the other is to romanticize it."

Adams, a striking woman with silver hair and a highly developed sense of style, was accused by one reviewer of presenting too pretty an image of senility. In her own life, advancing age in the 1980s brought particular horrors--a bout of colon cancer and a traumatic operation to remove a malignant tumor between her eyes.

But when Adams recovered from the last operation, Wilson said, "she went back and wrote three more books," including the 1997 novel "Medicine Men," in which the central character was a woman who had cancer.

"She had an incredible spirit," Wilson said, "a radiance and youthfulness that made you think she was going to be there forever."

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