Thursday, October 14, 2010

Entry 19: "The Stone Diaries" by Carol Shields (1995)

Sorry I haven't posted in a while—the Internet at my house has been fiercely unreliable as of late, and I have been unable to post anything. However, I finished Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries (1995)—my 23rd completed Pulitzer novel—a couple days ago, and am here now to tell you all about my thoughts of it!

This project, I must confess, is becoming more and more grueling. Joshua and I couldn't sleep last night, so we took a midnight road trip up and down Route 50 in the dark of the evening hours. During the trip, we discussed the project and how we think we're doing and we both decided that we're getting really burnt out on reading. Both of us have only seriously pursued this project for four months, however we have both read nearly 20 of these books each—personally, I have read six of them in the last week and a half. We are completing these novels at breakneck speeds.

When I finished The Stone Diaries, I immediately went to my shelf, placed it back in its proper spot and grabbed the next novel, meandered back to my futon, laid down, and commenced reading. And after 20 or so pages, I suddenly realized that I am becoming a recluse. I am forsaking the great outdoors, my writing, my bicycle, my friends, my guitar, my God, and everything else that encompasses my daily existence.

The Pulitzer Project may very well turn into me an incredibly well-read connoisseur of American literature, but conversely, it may very well be the tipping point in my life that drives me toward insanity. 
When I was a student at Northern Illinois University, I enrolled in a class titled "Introduction to Poetry"—the professor was nationally-acclaimed poet Dr. Amy Newman. The year before, I had taken an advanced creative writing class at Waubonsee Community College and my professor (and my peers) thought I was the bee's knees. Seriously, I could do no wrong in their eyes. Every poem I presented was met with praise. So, when I went to NIU, I really thought I had it going on in the poetry department. However, much to my surprise and chagrin, when I presented my first poem in Dr. Newman's class, she merely smirked and flippantly said, "Oh. That was nice, Drew."

A wave of humiliation swept over me and I made it my personal goal to impress Dr. Newman. I didn't really care if my poetry was actually good or not—I just wanted to impress her.

After every assignment, I read my poem to the class and everyone would discuss it, gauging whether it had any poetic merit or not. The students, lesser critics that they were, usually agreed that my writing was pretty good. Dr. Newman, on the other hand, would cringe at every recital of my poetry; and she had the same complaint every time: after my first poem, she told me, "Drew, I feel like you're wandering around in the desert, and you see a cliff off in the distance, but don't even dare to approach it;" the second time, she said, "Drew, I feel like you've seen a cliff off in the distance and you're walking towards it, but you're too afraid to really investigate it;" after the third poem, she said, "Drew, I feel like you've walked up to the edge of a cliff and you're inching your feet over the edge and just gazing down into a valley instead of taking the big leap;" after my final workshop poem, she said, "Drew! That was so much better, but you're not still there!" I finally asked, "Dr. Newman—what do you mean?? That was my best one yet!" She agreed, but then added, "It's like you've come up to the cliff and you've finally taken a giant leap, but, on the way down, you saw a tree root sticking out of the side of the cliff walls, grabbed it, and are now just hanging on for dear life!"

If I were to summarize how I felt about Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries, I'm afraid to report that's how I'd explain it. While the novel was well written, and while Shields did a wonderful job of telling a story, there was something missing from the novel—it just didn't grab me and hold my attention captive the way Gilead, Olive Kitteridge, or American Pastoral did. I felt like Shields had jumped off the proverbial cliff, but was whisked away to safety at the last minute by a giant bird that swooped in to her rescue.
The Stone Diaries tells the 80 year life of Daisy Goodwill. I have to give her credit—Shields really attempts to tell her story in an interesting, dynamic, and engaging way, but unfortunately falls just short. After I finished the novel in two sittings, I closed the book, thought "Huh—what should I read next?" Like I said before, Shields wrote a good story; I was genuinely interested in what would happen next in Daisy Goodwill's life. However, I wasn't really captivated by or enthralled with the novel. After finishing the novel and learning about all of the things that happened to Daisy Goodwill and things that she did, I suddenly realized that I, in no way, knew Daisy Goodwill as a character than I did when I was first introduced to her (which is unfortunate, because I really thought I would've come to like her). Even during the sections that are written from Daisy's perspective, in the first person, the reader is never told how Daisy thinks of certain situations, or how she feels about her life; and Shields certainly doesn't shed much light on the subject.

How unfortunate for the reader—even after being introduced to the main character and hearing her entire life's story, she is still very much a stranger.

However, all of that being said, I can't help but wonder if it was Carol Shields' intent to write Daisy that way. There are a several different places in the novel where other characters are discussing Daisy, and in almost every section, Daisy is described as a woman who didn't even really, truly exist. Here, for example, is a segment of dialogue between her two daughters following her death:
"I do remember that once she said she liked pansies at a funeral. Not those dumb pansies with faces. What she liked were the absolutely pure purple ones, those deep, deep velvety petals. That's the only thing I can remember her saying apropos to death."
"She just let her life happen to her."
"Well, why the hell not?"
"It was like...Like she was always going after some stray little thought with a needle and thread."
"Afraid to look inside herself. In case there was nothing there."
And on the last page of the novel, Shields writes: "'I am not at peace.' Daisy Goodwill's final (unspoken) words." Could it be that Shields intentionally wrote Daisy in a secluded way because Daisy was, herself, so secluded and cut off from being real?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Entry 18: "Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout (2009)

For my 21st book of this Pulitzer Project, I decided I wanted to read a book from the 21st Century. Also, since I've been pleasantly surprised at the last two books I've read,—two books that I was utterly dreading (Alice Adams and The Age of Innocence)—I also wanted to read another book that I was sort of dreading, but was hoping would pleasantly surprise me. I had no idea—no idea whatsoever—that when I chose this book to read, I had chosen a book that immediately pushed its way into my top ten novels of all time; possibly even my top five (bear in mind this list also includes A Farewell to Arms, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Gilead, and The Catcher In the Rye—I have a feeling that Elizabeth Strout's 2009 Pulitzer-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, and The Great Gatsby will forever be duking it out for the fifth position).
Olive Kitteridge, I must admit, is probably the most emotionally draining novel I've read in quite some time—even more draining than Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, which also won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005; this I didn't think was even remotely possible. After nearly every section in every chapter, I had to reach for my bookmark, place it between the pages, shut the book, lay it down next to me, exhale a long, deep sigh and just stare off into the distance, just contemplating the words I just read. Elizabeth Strout is an incredibly gifted writer that can string a handful of words together in such a way that they can absolutely break your heart and wreck your soul. I read the book in only two sittings, but it took me about six hours to finish the scant 270 pages that my edition is because I had to take so many breaks just to absorb the material.

My compatriot, Joshua, kept telling me, "Look man, I know this is a competition and all, but you need to slow down with that book! You don't want to breeze through something that's as good as you say that book is just because you want to finish it quickly." However, as much as I agree with him, I almost literally couldn't put it down. The stories are so engaging and the writing is so good that I couldn't bear the thought of putting it down—not even for a moment. Strout brought me into a cold and gloomy world that is being torn apart my scandals, deaths, affairs, and hurts that I couldn't tear myself away from.

I hated being in that place—I hated the hopelessness, the despair, the heartache on almost every page; but I could not, for the life of me, bring myself to leave that place.

The novel is written in much the same style as N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn (Pulitzer, 1969), though not as experimental, or postmodern, or however it may be described. The book, ultimately, is the story of an entire town, but Strout employs the titled character, Olive Kitteridge, as its epicenter. Strout focuses most of her attention on this woman, while narrating the story of the lives of those around her. In her narratives, we meet a wide variety of characters including: a lounge singer who's hung up on a past relationship, an emotionally wrecked young woman whose newly-wed husband is tragically killed by his best friend, a family that has no idea how to function as a cohesive unit, a married man and a widow who have an affair to deal with their loneliness, and a kleptomaniac who can't hold down a steady job.

Their stories—told over the course of forty-ish years—swirl around the story of Olive Kitteridge, a retired school teacher who is one of the most complicated fictional characters I have ever had the good pleasure to meet. From story to story, from scene to scene, her personality shifts from funny and charming, to bitter and angry; from comforting and understanding, to bitchy and confrontational; from warm and caring, to cold and callous. She is as capable of being extremely likable as she is of being extremely unlikable. She is easily the most dynamic and interesting literary character I have ever come across. Neither Holden Caulfield, nor Stephen Dedalus, nor Dr. House (who I truly do believe is the most complicated character in television history) hold a candle to this woman's level of complexity.
I do have one bone to pick with Elizabeth Strout, however...
Almost four years ago, I had this very same idea for a memoir. I wanted to write a memoir entitled Other People's Lives, and I wanted it to document the story of my lie by telling the stories of "other people's lives." For example, I wanted to write an essay about my coming back to my faith wholeheartedly by telling the story of my good friend, Joshua Riley; an essay about my struggle with loneliness by telling the stories of women I have known; etc., etc. I would merely be an extra in my own story—much like the concept of the film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Now that I've read Olive Kitteridge—a novel that employs this very technique and does so exquisitely—I really don't think I could do anything that would even pale in comparison; my memoir wouldn't pale in comparison, it would be translucent in comparison.

Thank you, Elizabeth Strout, for deflating and destroying my burgeoning literary career.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Entry 17.2: "The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton (1921)

As promised, here is the second part of my review of Edith Wharton's 1921 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Age of Innocence.

Welcome back.
There was something I really wanted to address more in my last post, but I was way too tired to really delve into it, so I just barely introduced it. But I'd like to think that this book was a significant stride forward for women and the feminist movement. Like I said, this book was published in 1920—the same year that American women were granted the right to vote. I find it significant that the Pulitzer Prize committee not only awarded the highest prize in American literature to a woman the very next year, but awarded it to a novel that set two women as the story's protagonists (one of which was a rebellious, independent woman—a character who, at that time, would have been demonized in real life).

I also don't find it coincidental at all that Ellen Odeska, the independent woman, was the desire of Newland Archer—she was his forbidden fruit. He was attracted by her beauty, by her carefree lifestyle, by her disregard for societal customs, by her foreignness. Also, not surprisingly, she was the envy of almost every character in the novel. Sure, Old New York's aristocratic elitists had some things to say about the Countess Odeska and her foreign lifestyle, but everybody loved her. Ellen Odeska represents the new direction women are taking in life—the building blocks of feminism can be found in Ellen: she entertains single and married men in her quarters, she's a divorcee, she came to America specifically to get away from her husband, she's independent, she openly does not care about social conventions, she's strong, she's rebellious. She embodies everything foreign and exotic that Newland Archer was so attracted to.

May Welland, on the other hand, represents Old New York's dying aristocracy. She's bland, boring, snobbish, prudish, upright, aristocratic; she's far too hung up on what it means to be "civilized," far too hung up on what others perception of her is to truly enjoy life. Really, there are only two reasons Archer was so eager to marry her: 1) she was aristocracy and that was the life he desired to maintain, and 2) he was conflicted about having feelings for Ellen Odeska, so wanted to rush his marriage to May Welland (such bizarre logic, by the way). But Archer, really, doesn't want to be with May; he'd much rather be with Ellen. In fact, in a moment that, for this book, was so uncharacteristically dark that it jarred me, Archer actually fantasizes about his bride's death so that he'd be free to be with Ellen:
What if it were she who was dead! If she were going to die—to die soon—and leave him free! The sensation of standing there, in that warm familiar room, and looking at her, and wishing her dead, was so strange, so fascinating and overmastering, that its enormity did not immeditately strike him. He simply felt that chance had given him a new possibility to which his soul might cling. Yes, May might die—people did: young people, healthy people like herself: she might die, and set him suddenly free.
Later, in the novel, of course May Welland does eventually die, but simply because of (presumably) old age. And, of course, when she does die, Newland Archer hops all over the first chance he gets to fly to Paris to meet up with Ellen Odeska. What I did not see coming, however, is that Newland never meets up with Ellen—he goes to her apartment, sits on a park bench and watches her son go up to meet her first but promises to be up soon enough, then turns around and heads back to his hotel alone. Perhaps Newland finally realizes that Ellen is far better off without him. Or perhaps Newland is so entrenched in his old ways that he can't bear to leave them behind.

Regardless, it should come as no surprise that May Welland dies a miserable old woman and Ellen Odeska thrives on her own in Paris. This is a symbolic image of American feminism—the old, fuddy-duddy May Welland fades and rusts while Ellen Odeska still burns bright even in her older age. Things were changing in American society—women were just beginning to gain ground in being seen as individuals and equals. The Pulitzer Prize committee surely recognized this shift in the American landscape and that surely must have been at the forefront of their minds when they selected The Age of Innocence to win their award.

Entry 17.1: "The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton (1921)

It's been a mere week since my reading companion, Joshua, and I restarted our Pulitzer journey with renewed vigor, and I, having just finished Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, already find myself three novels closer to finishing the project. Of course, this means I still have another 63 to go, but that number looks a more pleasant prospect than 67.

As you may have well gathered by now, Josh and I don't stand a snowball's chance in hell of reading all 84 of these books in one year; I don't think we stood much of a chance in the first place, to be perfectly honest. So we have revised the project a little bit, added another rule or two, and I think this slight detour in our journey will be much more rewarding—for one of us anyway.

So, before I go into my review of this novel, here's the new plan: rather than attempting to simultaneously finish all of the novels in one year, we are going to race each other to the finish. This may take us all the way up to next summer to do, but that is the new goal. As a reward, the winner gets to relish in the public humiliation of his counterpart.

Allow me to explain: I am an ardent Chicago Cubs fan, and Joshua is an ardent Boston Red Sox fan. Next summer, the Cubs will be playing the Red Sox in Boston, so Josh and I are going to make the road trip to Fenway Park to cheer on our favorite teams. Here's the catch: if I finish all of the books before he does, he has to wear a New York Yankees jersey at the game. If he wins, I have to wear a Chicago White Sox jersey at a Cubs game. Can you imagine the humility? Driving halfway across the country to watch your all-time favorite baseball team and having to wear their arch-rival's jersey? I'm afraid this will be a humiliation he'll have to endure, because Lord knows damn well that I am not going to desecrate the holy sanctuary that is Wrigley Field by wearing a White Sox jersey there.

This new challenge has reinvigorated both of us and has propelled us forward. This challenge may well be the reason I was so steadfast in finishing The Age of Innocence, a novel I probably wouldn't have otherwise been able to bear reading. Then again, perhaps the reason I was able to finish the novel in a mere three sittings was because I actually kind of enjoyed it.
If you've been following this blog, you know by now that I am not a fan of these books that deal with the upper crust of society. Unfortunately, The Age of Innocence is one of those books. However, despite its subject matter, I actually rather enjoyed the novel. Don't get me wrong—I had my fair share of qualms with Wharton throughout my reading, but it was nothing I couldn't overcome by the conclusion of the story. And, really, my qualms with Wharton had little to nothing to do with the story itself—they were more centered on trifling matters like language, symbolism, character development and pacing. I know these traits in a novel should be desirable ones, but I have read enough literature in my life to come to the conclusion that if the story is good and well-told, these issues are hardly issues at all. As I have with so many other novels before, I found this to be the case with The Age of Innocence.

There are a few things that Wharton is guilty of in this book: the biggest thing, which I really hope Joshua goes more into on his blog, is her overuse of symbolism—really obvious symbolism too. There were a handful of times when I read a phrase and had to put the book down just to gaze off into the distance and sometimes actually say out loud, "Really? Really, Edith Wharton?" Symbolism, in my opinion, should merely be used in a way that will make the reader question what he/she is reading and investigate further. Symbolism should be used as the catalyst that drives the reader to "read between the lines," if I may abuse an old cliche. Symbolism should never be used as a means of stating something that is obvious, or something that the reader could have inferred without the symbol's placement. Furthermore, symbolism should be sly and almost easy to miss—not heavy-handed, the way Wharton employed it in this novel. A really good example of heavy-handed symbolism can be found in Wes Anderson's film The Darjeeling Limited—at the end of the film, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman are running to catch a train, but their luggage is slowing them down. So they shed their bags to lighten their loads and are able to jump aboard the train. The symbolism here is that the bags belonged to their recently deceased father, a figure whose memory plagues the three brothers. So only by shedding their own personal baggage of their father's memory are they able to move on. Of course, the symbolism here is made even more heavy-handed by Wes Anderson's characteristic use of slow motion.

Secondly, and this is just a preference thing, but the language in this novel was so flowery and thick that I couldn't hardly stand it. It was a real labor to get through the first 20 or so chapters of the book because I was so distracted, so bogged down, by Wharton's insistence of using completely unnecessary wording. I would venture to estimate that if one were to remove all of the superfluous narrative that Wharton felt the need to foray into, my 298 page edition of this novel would only be about 100 or so pages. Honestly, I think that's a fair estimate too—two thirds of the book's content is completely and totally superfluous fluff. Only one third of the words she uses drive the actual plot. The rest of the words Wharton writes are adverbs for the people say things and adjectives for things that her characters have. She then has long narratives about side characters whom have no bearing on the actual story. The only thing I got out of this is that Edith Wharton really wants her readers to know what kind of people her three main characters associate themselves with.
All of that being said, I actually (surprisingly) quite enjoyed the story. The Age of Innocence documents a sordid love triangle in Old New York. Newland Archer, the protagonist of the story, is well-to-do man about town and he is betrothed to May Welland—this, of course, is a perfect match in their Old New York aristocracy: they are both wealthy, have associations in the same group of peers, and both of them have the sort-of same ambitions (namely, to be wealthy and well respected by their group of peers). This all changes for Newland Archer when he is introduced to, and thus enchanted by, Countess Ellen Odeska—a fiercely independent European woman who is obviously unfamiliar with societal customs in Old New York, but wouldn't adhere to them even if she were familiar with them. She comes to America to escape her abusive husband, files for divorce, spends a lot of her time with men alone, refuses to adhere to aristocratic customs and "rules of engagement," and even goes so far as to spark a love affair with an engaged man (Newland Archer)—all of these things that make Ellen Odeska who she is as a woman also make her an oddity in her new aristocratic setting. Furthermore, they make her a bit exotic, a bit refreshing, in the eyes of Newland Archer. So, then, the central conflict of this story is internal, and it lays in Archer's conflicting desires to live in the upper crust of Old New York and pursue a happy relationship with Ellen Odeska. Unfortunately, for him, these two desires are not compatible.
When we place this novel historically, it is no wonder it won a Pulitzer Prize. In fact, I would venture to say that it probably created a bit of controversy upon its release.

This novel won the Pulitzer—the greatest achievement in American literature— in 1921, a year after its publication. This was also the first Pulitzer-winning novel to have been written by a woman—Edith Wharton (preceding her were Ernest Poole and Booth Tarkington). Coincidentally, 1920 was the same year that Congress ratified women's suffrage in the United States. Women in the United States were starting to gain ground as valuable members of society at this time in history.

Now, although Newland Archer is the main character in this novel, thus making him the protagonist—he's not a very likable character. In fact, he's more of an antagonist than anything. He doesn't really contribute anything to society, he's just a rich playboy. The only thing in the story that he actually does is nearly destroy the lives of two different women by leading them on and playing with their emotions and their minds. The two women, May Welland and Ellen Odeska, represent the two extremes that Archer sways between—"proper society" and humanity, respectively. In any story, the main character is the protagonist that the reader is meant to ally his/herself with, get behind, cheer for, identify with, etc. In this story, however, the main character is just an idiot. It is the two women that we really feel for—it is they who we most want to overcome. And given its historical context, it is no wonder that it is the women (who, really, are each others exact polar opposite) that the reader is meant to align with. It is the alpha male that is made into the bewildered, almost accidental, antagonist.

Perhaps I'm reading a little bit too much into this, perhaps I was brainwashed at Northern Illinois University by Dr. Derosa into making extreme feminist critiques of everything I read; nevertheless, I don't find these items to be coincidental and it would take a really strong argument to convince me otherwise.
It is currently 2:35am and I am very sleepy. There are a few more things I'd like to say about The Age of Innocence, but I am going to save them for a second post (that I may write when I wake up in a few hours). And with this book behind me, the next step along my journey will be Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Entry 16: "Alice Adams" by Booth Tarkington (1922)

When, to my well-documented horror, I read Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons, only the second Pulitzer Prize to be awarded for fiction, I decided I was going to put off reading his second Pulitzer-winning novel, Alice Adams, as long as I possibly could. In fact, I was really hoping I could just forgo it entirely and merely pretending that I had read it, the way I did so often with some of the books I was assigned at university. One of my subscribers had written to me following my review of Ambersons and told me that while she hadn't read that particular novel, she rather liked Alice Adams—in fact, she really liked it. I almost didn't believe her. I was entirely sure that Booth Tarkington was, quite possibly, the worst writer I have ever read—I was hoping I was wrong, but I very much doubted it.

Now, of course, that I have successfully finished reading Alice Adams, I'm afraid I have to eat my words. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually really enjoyed this novel, and that Tarkington did a wonderful job of writing this story. This discovery, therefore, makes me wonder why I hated The Magnificent Ambersons so much. There is no one in this whole wide world that could ever convince me that it was a well-written novel, let alone a good story. His symbolism was overt, the story was entirely predictable, some of the events in the story were outlandish... It was just an all-around bad novel. I was under the impression that it was because Tarkington just wasn't a very good writer. Alice Adams, on the other hand, left me believing the opposite is true—that Tarkington was a good writer, and that maybe, just maybe, he knew exactly what he was doing in Ambersons.

Perhaps Tarkington intentionally wrote Ambersons the way he did to make a point (God only knows what that point could have possibly been)... Or, perhaps Tarkington got really, really lucky with the Pulitzer committee that particular year... Or, perhaps the Pulitzer committee begrudgingly awarded him the Prize, then awarded him again when Alice Adams was so much better of a novel... Or, perhaps I'm missing something entirely and I'm not nearly the literary connoisseur I thought I was.

Now that we've both read both of Tarkington's Pulitzer-winners and both of us have extremely conflicted opinions of his writing, Joshua and I have decided that the only way to truly determine what kind of writer Tarkington was is to read a third novel by him. That novel, which will be named later and after this Pulitzer journey is over, will be the tie-breaker as it were.
I'm sensing a theme in the early Pulitzer novels (though I have yet to complete all of the first decade's worth, I have a feeling I know the central conflict of these novels is)—social status. Tarkington, especially, seems to really relish in writing about this particular theme; as do Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, and Louis Bromfield. The same is true of other Jazz Age writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, or Sinclair Lewis. So far, though, amongst Pulitzer-winning authors, it seems to be Tarkington that is championing the trend.

In The Magnificent Ambersons, for instance, the central conflict of the book is that of Georgie Minafer's slow decline into cultural insignificance. At the beginning of the novel, the Ambersons are truly "magnificent"—they own a lot of property, they own business ventures, they have old money, their home is decadent, they throw outlandish parties; but over time, their social status as the elite upper crust begins to fade away and the town they live in begins to change, thus changing the people that live in it. Alice Adams, similarly, chronicles the struggle of the Adams family, a family of middle class social outsiders, to fit in with their upper class peers.

As much as I was surprised to discover that I didn't hate Alice Adams, but in fact really liked it, I wasn't surprised at all when, midway through the novel, I "discovered" the theme of acting that Tarkington was working into the story. Now, there are two reasons I say that I wasn't surprised to find this theme: 1) I'm a trained reader and I'm adept to picking up literary themes, and 2) Tarkington was slapping me in the face with it throughout the novel. That sort of writing drives me absolutely crazy. I can appreciate when an author is trying to work with themes or symbolism or irony and drops little hints here and there that are sort of obvious, but still take some digging to really understand—that sort of writing makes reading fun, almost an adventure or a challenge. But when an author thinks that his or her audience is comprised of complete nincompoops and feels the urge to highlight these moments with flashing lights, I almost get a little offended!

Of the 434 pages that my edition of Alice Adams is, I'm estimating that Tarkington dedicated ten entire pages to "acting." Alice talks about wanting to be an actress on three different occasions; Mrs. Adams talks about the times when she was younger and wanted to be an actress and still, sometimes, even in her older age, thinks about acting; Alice explains to Mr. Russell her desire to act and how every girl secretly (or outwardly) wants to be an actress; Alice acts a scene from Romeo and Juliet; films and plays and the theater are discussed in several different scenes; Tarkington makes comparisons of his characters to fictional stage and film characters—when this theme is brought up every couple or so pages, it's hard to miss! It almost insults my literary intelligence!

And here's the kicker about this whole "acting" business—I believe the only reason Tarkington is so adamant about bringing it up over and over and over is because he doesn't think his readership could guess on their own that, when different members of the Adams family go to formal, upper-class dinners, or attempt to host their own versions of them, or dress the way that their upper-class peers dress, they are merely acting the part! Thank you, Mr. Tarkington—without your constantly drilling acting into my head, I would have never guessed that the Adams were merely role playing.

Furthermore, Tarkington is so clearly heavily influenced by Victorian literature that it's almost distracting—Alice Adams was so Austenian in language and subject matter that I almost forgot that it was written in the heart of the Modernist movement. And the ending—oh, Lord; the ending was so Dickensian, so happily wrapped up in pretty paper and a bow on top, I wanted to puke. It was so much like A Christmas Carol that I was half expecting old Ebeneezer himself to waltz into the Adams' home and jovially declare, "Behold! A goose! A Christmas goose!" All of the characters in the book would then gather 'round Mr. Adams sick-bed and embrace each other and Mr. Adams would quip, "God bless us, every one."


Literary Snob Vent: over.
Don't get me wrong—I don't hate Booth Tarkington because of this little grievance of mine. The truth is, a lot of writers are guilty of being obvious. It's just that Tarkington was guilty this time. Despite it's obviousness, the novel was really, really enjoyable. I thought the story was well developed and well told, I really liked the way Tarkington created a tension between loyalty to family and desire to be something greater that all of the main characters faced, and I particularly liked the characters that he created.

The titled character, Alice, and I got off to a rocky start—in the first three chapters, I really thought she was just a snobby, snotty (if I may be entirely candid) bitch. I know that's harsh, but I really did not like her at all in those first three chapters. Now, it could have been that I was reading the novel through a negative lens because I was so sure I was going to hate it—maybe my own prejudice just prevented me from liking her right away. But over the course of the next 22 chapters, I absolutely fell in love with Alice. She's funny, she's quirky, she's perceptive, she's silly, she's flirty, she's beautiful, she's loyal; she's every woman that I've ever known and she's quite the catch.

As I mentioned before, it's plain to see that Tarkington was pretty influenced by Victorian literature—his characterization of Alice, especially, is almost something out of a Jane Austen novel. I would daresay that Alice Adams is almost a reincarnation of Elizabeth, from Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The only difference between the two is that Alice, unlike Elizabeth, wants to be part of the aristocracy that surrounds her, but only to a certain point. Inasmuch as she wants to be part of that scene, she refuses to betray her family, or put them through the wringer in order to do it. She's loyal to them. Therein lies the central conflict of the novel—Alice's internal struggle: the tension between desiring to be "somebody" and knowing the importance of being who you are; striving to be something extraordinary while still trying to be fruitful and functional in her ordinariness.

I have to give credit where credit is due—Tarkington masterfully developed that tension. When dealing with that sort of subject matter, it is incredibly easy to go either too far with it, or not far enough. If Tarkington were any less of an author (i.e., the author I thought he was before I read this novel), he could have either created a whiny, selfish, bratty, unlikeable Alice or an Alice that his readers could care less about one way or the other. However, Tarkington toed this line miraculously and created one of the most endearing characters I've ever had the good pleasure to read. In fact, I almost didn't want the novel to end—I was that in love with her character.

I also really liked Mr. Adams—an incredibly emotionally complicated character. Again, Tarkington had a thin line to toe with this character. Mr. Adams is an ill man that isn't upset about not earning what he's worth, but indifferent about it in not doing with his life what he's capable of. When he finally decides to take matters into his own hands and start generating some more money for his family, the whole venture blows up in his face and he is forced to deal with the futility of it. Again, Tarkington could have gone too far with this character or not far enough: he could have created an angry, bitter, cynical old man that the reader just despises, or he could have created just some guy that has some nondescript problems that he feels indifferent to that the reader doesn't really care about.

Then, of course, there's Mrs. Adams... Boy, did I hate this woman. I really dreaded every single time she opened her mouth. I found her to be pushy, arrogant, self-involved, and just altogether loathsome. I hated how she pushed her husband to be a man he clearly wasn't ready to be; I hated how she pushed her daughter into being the woman that she always wanted to be but never was; I hated how uncomfortable she made Mr. Russell; I hated how she treated her hired staff; I hated her melodrama, her overreactions, her snottiness, her attitude of entitlement. I absolutely hated everything she represented. Much like Tarkington's other loathsome character, Georgie Minafer, I really wanted her to get her (as Tarkington would say) "come-uppance."
So now that I have finished yet another Pulitzer novel, I have a dilemma—I don't know how to feel about Booth Tarkington anymore. Whereas I would advise everyone I know to never, ever, ever read The Magnificent Ambersons, I would advise every young woman out there to read Alice Adams rather than anything Jane Austen ever wrote. In fact, I'd advise men to read it too—I was that impressed with it. With this novel behind me, I am eager to read the other two authors who have won two Pulitzers—William Faulkner and John Updike. Why did these three men win two Pulitzers? More specifically, why did the novels they won for win? How are their two books similar? How are they different? Tarkington, in my mind anyway, certainly improved in storytelling and writing from one win to the other—is the same true of Faulkner and Updike? Time will tell.

Next stop: Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton.