Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Book #4: Alice Adams

I don't get it. Was this a cautionary tale? Was this supposed to be  tragedy? Who were we supposed to be rooting for in this book? The author doesn't really make it very clear. I'm not even certain whether or not the ending was supposed to be happy or sad. I guess I should explain myself..

Booth Tarkington is responsible for this book. Yup, the same guy who brought us Book #2: The Magnificent Ambersons. These books are very similar in that they both deal with "new money" upper middle class Americans families who put on airs as if they were royalty or at least as if they were upper class families like those in Pride and Prejudice. I suppose in a way, these families ARE royalty in their own communities and they certainly are treated as such. The big difference between the two books is that the main character in this story is the daughter in a solidly middle class family who is trying desperately to clammer their way to upper middle class. Of course the existence of a middle class and the ability to social climb is what makes this story extremely American. Written in the same era in England, this book would have been a comedy. For that reason alone, I'd recommend this book to a history buff. Tarkington does a great job of making plain the anxiety and thirst of this family (well, the women in this family) in their plight for upward mobility. The main character, who of course is named Alice Adams, reminded me a lot of Lindsay Lohan's character in "Confessions of a Teenaged Drama Queen." She spends all of her time and energy fabricating a life in the hopes of being accepted by the popular crowd but somewhere along she completely loses any sense of who she truly is.

This loss of identity is what makes me wonder whether or not we are supposed to be rooting for her or pitying her. Is this a cautionary tale about social climbing? Who would have been the target demographic for this novel? Other women like Alice Adams or the women with whom she was competing? Maybe Tarkington didn't have a message at all. Maybe he was simply telling a common tale that he knew others could relate to: Cautious and loyal father, pushy and silly mother, whimsical and fanciful daughter, and the rebellious son all trapped in a social structure that only favors those who are BOTH lucky and intelligent. I'd imagine this story would have been very amusing (and perhaps inspiring) for any of the literate souls of the Europe's working class. I could see a studious and industrious coal miner in 1920s Wales reading this while thinking, "If given the chance, MY family would have made it!"

The other striking characteristic of this book was that the "help" was given a bit of a voice. And while that voice was mostly relegated to the background of the story, it wasn't passive or complacent. The Black American characters in this novel had wit, snark, and a bite to them that wasn't immediately shut down by the author as being impudent. He seemed to feel they had a right to speak their few lines. Even if the majority of the characters didn't respect them as equals, Tarkington seemed to understand that behind the spoken "yessuh's" there was a definite mood of "I'm only doing my job. I don't actually think you are better than me" that I thought I would have to wait until The Color Purple to find. To say the very least, it was refreshing. I'm sure I will want to rip my hair out at the shucking and jiving that is soon to come in Gone With the Wind.

I finished this one in one sitting but I more or less fidgeted through the last quarter of it. At first I was thinking, how can they possibly tie up this story in 100 pages? But by then it I felt more like, why on earth was this book so long? They could have told this entire story in 200 pages tops. There were conversations that seemed to drag on for 10-20 pages or descriptions of a walk about town that I swore took up 30 pages. I love description but listening to someone's circular musings for page after page just makes me want to stab myself in the eye with a spork. If my blogs make you feel that way, I will gladly give you a spork.

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