This Pulitzer Prize winner from 1921 reads almost like a Jane Austen novel, except for its mildly feminist theme. Alice is the daughter of Virgil Adams, a man of middling means with no hope of rising above his post at the firm where he has always worked. His wife nags him constantly to quit his job and find something that will provide his daughter with enough wealth to secure her future.
The family lives in decaying house with outdated furniture, in a neighborhood where coal dust covers everything. As the author puts it, “the ‘hard-wood’ floor had become uneven; and in a corner the walls apparently failed of solidity, where the wall-paper had declined to accompany some staggers of the plaster beneath it.” Alice and her mother struggle to keep up appearances by performing household chores in lieu of the maid they cannot afford.
Still, Alice does her best to appear sought-after, to the point of picking violets for her own bouquet at a formal dance. She has no suitors to fill her dance card until Arthur Russell, a new arrival in town, begins to court her. Being admired for her personality alone is a new experience for Alice, and she tries to make the most of it.
Things take a dramatic turn when Virgil attempts to start a glue factory to appease his wife. Meanwhile their son entangles himself with seedy characters, bringing disgrace upon the family. Ultimately, Alice must make a choice that will determine the course of her future.
Despite occasional derogatory references to black Americans, there is much to admire in this novel, particularly the comically cruel dance scene in which Alice struggles to achieve acceptance. Failing, she dreams of other paths to fulfillment. “Beautiful things happen to other people,” she reflects. “Why should I be the only one they never can happen to?” Dutifully, she subjugates her ambitions to the needs of her ailing father and strives to promote peace between her parents.
Alice Adams is a well-crafted novel with a well-developed main character. A hundred years after its debut, it remains compelling and satisfying.