"However the '90s turn out, they will be improved so long as Alice Adams keeps observing them."
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Caroline has been married three times and has five daughters--all very different from her. Now that they are grown, she feels distant from them and the woman she once thought herself to be. Caroline's daughters love their mother but live as if she weren't around, exploring their own unpredictable lives, making mistakes, borrowing each other's men, and turning into the kind of women their mother could never have foreseen.
"An immensely satisfying book...with all the breadth and much of the appeal of Adams's memorable SUPERIOR WOMEN."
From the Paperback edition.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Alice Adams, born in Virginia and educated at Radcliffe College, is the author of ten highly praised novels. Her short stories have appeared in twenty-two O. Henry Awards collections and several volumes of Best American Short Stories. She has been the recipient of an Academy and Institute Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Ms. Adams' other novels include Superior Women, a New York Times bestseller, Almost Perfect, Medicine Men, and Second Chances, all published by Washington Square Press. She lives in San Francisco.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Caroline Carter and her husband, Ralph, as a couple are impressive, even imposing: perched at the top of a broad concrete flight of stairs, in one of San Francisco's prettiest, greenest and most elevated parks (the view is marvellous, hills and tall buildings, church spires and further high green parks), they draw a lot of attention from the stray passers-by, the dog walkers and strollers, on this bright April Sunday. For one thing they both look foreign, Caroline and Ralph, although Caroline has lived in this city for many years and Ralph is a native son. But now, out of the country for over five years, they wear mildly eccentric clothes. Caroline's heavy gray sweater (she expected fog) is un-American in design, as is the cut of Ralph's tweed jacket. Also, they are very large people, Caroline a tall fair woman, broad-faced, serene, with wide-set green-blue eyes and heavy gray-blonde hair -- and Ralph a towering, massive man, once called "hulking" by a hostile press. Ralph is Caroline's third husband, and she his fourth wife -- an unpropitious history, perhaps, but after twenty-five years this marriage seems to have taken: they look quite permanently married.
And, almost rich and almost old, Caroline is back in a city where for many years she was young and almost broke, where four of her five daughters were born, and where she enjoyed a number of lovers. A lively life, then, and in its way romantic, although Caroline is eminently a realist, a practical, sensible woman. Or so she sees herself, generally.
At the moment they are sitting there like tourists in the early sunlight, looking down the terraced hill and across the street to their own house -- from which they have been temporarily expelled by those five daughters, who are giving a welcome-home party for Ralph and Caroline. A somewhat delayed welcome back: their actual return from Portugal, where they spent most of those five years, took place in January. In any case the daughters, Sage, Liza, Fiona, Jill and Portia, are "doing it all," bringing food and drink and even flowers -- quite foolishly, Caroline thinks, her garden is full of flowers. It is the sort of party that has been discussed and discussed, and that Caroline has all along tried somehow to prevent, but has not. And now it is almost upon her. Upon them all.
The food will be almost entirely done by Fiona, the middle, highly successful food-person daughter: "Fiona's" is an extremely trendy, very popular (this year) California-cuisine restaurant, on Potrero Hill.
Everything about this project has contributed to Caroline's unease, now expressed in her restless posture, and her large strong hands that gesture helplessness from her lap. "I'd like it so much better if they were all doing it, and not just Fiona," she says, with a small worried frown. "Or if I were doing it all myself."
"If you were doing it all." Ralph laughs at her, gently. "Come on, Caro."
But Caroline insists. "Well, it is our house. Even if food is what Fiona does. Ostensibly. So funny, she really can't cook. I don't know, it just all seems wrong. Everything," she vaguely finishes.
"Our rich kids," Ralph supplies.
"I suppose that's part of it. To have two such extremely successful ones, in ways I never knew about or even imagined."
Ralph makes an ambiguous sound, expressing to Caroline the fact that she has said all this before, more or less. But she does not mind this comment from Ralph, whom she loves (usually); she has needed, repeatedly, to say how she feels about these particular daughters, the very rich ones: Fiona, at thirty-three the well-known restaurateur (does anyone say "restaurateuse," Caroline wonders?), and Jill, at thirty-one a very rich young lawyer-stockbroker.
"Well, there's always Portia," Ralph put in, now in his turn repeating himself. "We can count on her not to get ahead, I think." Portia, twenty-five, is the one and only daughter from the marriage of Caroline and Ralph.
"Well, you're right about Portia," says Caroline about this youngest, most problematic child. "And then there's Sage," she adds, with a sigh for her eldest daughter, a bravely unsuccessful, highly talented (in her mother's view) ceramicist, whose strange, small, intensely expressive figures sell rarely or not at all, in their occasional viewings, in local galleries. Sage, now forty-one, is the product of Caroline's very early (at nineteen) marriage to Aaron Levine, who died in that war, in 1943, before Sage was born. Subtle, dark Sage is the image of her father. She seems given to trouble: fairly soon after the demise of a spectacularly unfortunate love affair with a local lawyer-politico, she married a man named Noel Finn, who is overly handsome (again, in Caroline's view), a carpenter, some seven years younger than Sage.
"Sage will be the first to come today," says Caroline, who is now beginning to speak her thoughts aloud. "And she'll bring some present that I won't quite know what to do with. And there'll be some excuse about Noel."
Caroline is right, as things turn out, but before that happens she and Ralph get up and walk about, and they talk about how much San Francisco has changed since they left it in 1980 (Reagan's year, as they think of it), and how much they like their house, despite neighborhood changes.
Behind where Caroline and Ralph were sitting is a tall grove of waving pines and redwoods, enclosing a little play area for children. Sandboxes, slides -- all at the moment unoccupied, amazing in this sunshine, this early fog-free morning. The long flight of stairs is flanked by terraces of grass, marked off with hedges and narrow paths. And below is a street, on the other side of which is a row of very attractive houses, all originally (just before the turn of the century) identical. And one of these is Caroline and Ralph's.
It is really Caroline's house. She bought it when she first came to San Francisco as a young widow in the Forties, an investment for which she used the last of her husband's insurance money. The house was in bad shape at that time, sagging and neglected; Caroline, who is skillful with houses, had it all fixed up -- and in the course of that long process (she kept running out of money) she grew to love the house but could not afford to live in it. Also, her next (second) husband, Dr. James McAndrew, did not like the neighborhood, at that time considered "bad," too close to what was then known as "the Fillmore," an area where mostly black people lived. And so, with Jim, Caroline moved to a "better" neighborhood, and she rented out her house. (Liza, now thirty-five, and then Fiona and Jill came in an orderly succession during that marriage of Caroline's to Jim -- whom she divorced in 1959 in order to marry Ralph, by whom she was then pregnant with Portia.)
As Caroline herself would have been the first to admit, she was stubborn and foolhardy about the house, rather than prescient. She did not have an instinct for real estate, she did not think in those terms. Her feelings about the house's drastic rise in value are ambivalent, to say the least (upper Fillmore Street was "gentrified," the black people "relocated").
She did have an instinct for houses, perhaps an atavistic inheritance from her English mother, the actress-playwright Molly Blair. She bought the house, really, because it was small and beautiful; she felt that it would suit her perfectly, and she was quite right. But Ralph, when they first married, did not want to live in the house for an opposite reason to Jim McAndrew's: for him the neighborhood was much too fancy, he felt (Ralph is a former longshoreman, later a political writer).
Then, in 1980, Molly Blair died, and a subsequent revival of interest in her work, publication of new editions of her plays, gave Caroline, her only child, a fair amount of money. And Reagan was elected. And Ralph had a mild heart attack. "Take it easy. Change your life," he was fairly forcefully advised.
For a combination of reasons, then, after distributing much of her money among her daughters, Caroline and Ralph took off for Portugal, where they spent almost five years -- during which the tenants of the house were elderly friends of Caroline's, who died within months of each other this past year, a strong reason for the return from Portugal of Caroline and Ralph. They returned to a valuable and perfectly maintained house; sheer practicality helped to persuade Ralph to live there after all. Their south garden, a treasure, widely coveted in San Francisco, grew bountifully -- just now, in April, full of roses and camellias, rhododendron, white wisteria.
"It's a perfect house for two people," in their sunnier moments Caroline and Ralph have remarked to each other. And, at darker times, "How can the two of us possibly occupy a whole house? with all the homeless people -- "
In their walk about the park, marking time until the arrival of the daughters and the pre-emption of their own roles, in their own house, Ralph and Caroline have touched lightly on all these topics, including that of the beauty of their garden.
"It must be in my genes," Caroline has earlier remarked. "The way I respond to gardens. I absolutely fall in love."
"Except that I really like the garden too," Ralph tells her. "My Texas genes?" Ralph's parents, grandparents, great grandparents all were Texans, a fact often manifest in his voice. Especially as he ages, Caroline thinks, he sounds more and more Southern. Texan.
And they now return to the more pressing topic of their daughters.
So many! Whatever have I done to deserve five daughters? rueful Caroline has been heard to remark, and there does seem a certain illogic to that fate, in her particular case. (And it was in many ways the presence of all those young women in San Francisco -- like many California offspring, those five cannot imagine life elsewhere, for themselves -- that kept Caroline for all those years away in Portugal. "I simply don't want to be so present in their lives," said Caroline.)
"I sometimes don't think Sage really likes Fiona very much," Caroline next remarks. "Or for that matter Jill."
"How could she? All that money that both of them seem to have." Ralph tends to speak more succinctly than Caroline does; conversationally he does not wander, as he sometimes accuses Caroline of doing.
"But she and Liza always seem great pals."
"Everyone likes Liza. She's the most like you."
This is a remark that Caroline often hears, not only from Ralph -- so often that she is tired of responding to it. What she might say, of herself and Liza, might be: We only sort of look alike, both being large, and she has three children. But we've got very different characters, lucky for her.
Ralph, that quintessential American, that most unlikely expatriate, was in fact quite happy in Lisbon, during those years. His solution -- and this was a part of the overall unlikeliness of it all -- was to domesticate himself, in ways hitherto quite unimaginable for him. He not only learned to cook, he went out to markets and he bargained, endlessly and successfully, in a language he could not speak, coming home with the largest cod and the smallest shellfish, at bargain prices. And this from a man whose life before that had been of the most intense and public involvement; in San Francisco he was known to be a not-too-secret political kingmaker -- and a man who had always come home, to all those wives, expecting meals on time and clean clothes, a clean bed and a pretty, accommodating wife, and who had always found all that, except for very brief between-wife periods. "It's something new for me," was Ralph's explanation to Caroline. And, "I like the fish." She came to understand that he also liked the docks and the fishermen, the whole waterfront atmosphere; it was what he was used to, and missed.
Whereas Caroline, who had spent her life in domestic pursuits, now spent all her days in museums and galleries. She even did some sketches and some tentative watercolors from their small apartment, high up in the Alfama, the old quarter of Lisbon, near the Castel San Georgio. They had a view of the harbor, boats and the bridge, the Twenty-fifth of April Bridge, built to commemorate the Generals' Revolution, the end of fascism. And all around them geraniums bloomed, on balconies and terraces, every shade from white to pink, orange to deep scarlet.
One of the best aspects of Lisbon was its access to the rest of Europe. Ralph and Caroline flew to London or Paris or Rome, they took trains to Madrid or Barcelona. And so those Portuguese years worked out quite well -- but nevertheless they both became quite restless, impatient. Travel writing was not his métier, Ralph decided, and Caroline felt that her sketches were hopelessly amateur. And then everything seemed at once to conspire to bring them home, most immediately the deaths of their tenants, the vacancy of their house.
They both, especially Caroline, had a sense that by this time their daughters were all right, or were at least settled on courses that they, the parent figures, would be unlikely to deflect. Sage had her ceramics, and her marriage to Noel. Liza was married to Saul Jacobs, a psychiatrist, and had her three babies. Fiona had her restaurant, Jill her law and her money. And Portia had her Bolinas shack, where (it was generally believed) she wrote poetry.
What could change?
"Well, of course you were right, there's Sage's car." Unnecessarily, Ralph points downward to the battered, mud-spattered, once-black, once-convertible VW. Sage is just getting out, alone, and maneuvering a very large box.
Tall, too-thin Sage is wearing white pants, probably Levi's, and something striped on top that is from Cost Plus, probably. Sage resists clothes, she tends to beat them up, to pour liquids over them. Her long, very dark hair is unfashionably pony-tailed. All in all she seems to be saying that she does not care, does not care that she is getting into her forties, that her husband is seven years younger and very handsome. But Caroline, looking at Sage as objectively as possible, still thinks that this daughter, this difficult eldest, is very beautiful, perhaps the only truly beautiful one. Ralph agrees: "Fiona and Jill are sexy but not true beauties." But they also agree that Sage should fix up a little more, as Ralph puts it. (Liza is very pretty but too fat, and Portia is, well, odd-looking; she looks like Ralph.)
Caroline calls out to Sage from where they are walking down the steps, and Sage waits for them where she stands, leaning against her dirty old car, with her big brown cardboard box.
"Noel had to go down the Peninsula," is the first thing that Sage says, with a quick downward twist of her mouth -- once kisses have been exchanged among the three of them, out there on the sidewalk, in the very unseasonal hot sun. "Honestly, these damn clients expect maintenance too," Sage says, and then adds, with a lift of her small cleft chin, "Of course it's a lot his fault. Noel loves to feel indispensable."
"Darling. I suppose we all do, don't we?" At times Caroline still sounds just faintly British, more inheritance
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