Life after Work

Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington – Pulitzer Prize Winner of 1922

I got to skip 1920 because there was no winner chosen that year. 1921’s winner was Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” which I borrowed as audio book, but I am not done with it yet. I did finish “Alice Adams” though, which I managed to snag as a free Kindle download from It was another story that takes a critical look at American society. This time the reader gets to meet Alice Adams, a young woman of a lower middle class background in a small midwestern town. Her family is trying to “keep up with the Joneses” but it doesn’t quite work out that way. Alice’s dad Virgil just does not make enough money working for J.A. Lamb’s large company as some sort of clerk.

When Alice is invited to another girl’s ball, Mrs. Adams and Alice have to fix up an old dress as much as they can and Alice has to pick her own flowers in the heat (oh my!) because they can’t afford to buy any. Alice does not seem to mind too much, but her mother is besides herself. She insists they could be doing so much better if her husband would quit his desk job and go into business for himself. At the ball it is clear that Alice is not popular with the other girls, they look down on her. I should mention that Alice never complains; she tries to make the best of things, but at times she sounded so naive and positive about the girls’ arrogant behavior that I was wondering if she was putting on a brave face or was just clueless.

The ball is pretty bleak for Alice although she gets to dance with a popular young man who is new in town and not aware of Alice’s pariah status. They meet again later and he tries to pursue her in spite of her polite dismissiveness (she knows there’s no real chance of her marrying him). Meanwhile, Alice’s parents attempt in various scheming ways to improve the family’s status in the hopes of raising her odds.

They do this in such clumsy ways that it was clear to me there was going to be no happy couple at the end. Instead, Alice opts for a new path in life – job training for a career as an office worker. Apparently an option that was not readily accepted at the time, or at least not by Alice’s family because earlier in the book she herself had been judgmental about girls in that line of work.

It really was odd; while her social climber mother was obsessing about getting her daughter married off to a wealthy guy, Alice herself seemed strangely oblivious, as if she did not really care what was going to happen to her. (Come to think of it, so was her father, until pressured into action by his wife’s rants.) The options for a woman to take care of herself without getting married, such as governess or teacher (or secretary), were apparently deemed as “too low”, but Alice was not upset either way – no complaints, no fretting about her future as if there was no worry. I really did get the idea sometimes she was a bit dense.

In the end, Alice’s family felt like a bunch of cardboard cutouts. Maybe that was on purpose, as comic relief? Sadly, it didn’t work for me. This book is what I would call a “fluff read,” very quick, and not all that great in my eyes. I liked that Alice in the end “emancipates” herself from her family’s old-fashioned ideals but that was too little too late.

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