Superior Women By Alice Adams '46 Alfred A. Knopf; 368pp.; $16.95
TO THE PECULIAR and insular category of literature known as "Harvard novels," prepare to add another to the sub-group of books about Radcliffe. Superior Women is representative of the genre but somewhat better because Alice Adams '46 appears to have no pretensions about her aims. Early on, the 'Cliffies recognize their resemblance to the typical group of girls who inhabited certain novels of the 1940s. And certainly they're stereotypical enough--the problem is that, whether Adams intended it or not, they never quite manage to become more than that.
It's a shame, too, because Adams has taken the sort of thing Rona Jaffe '51 and Faye Levine '65 do, and done it better. Three of the four main characters, while stereotypes simply because they are exactly what we have come to expect from Radcliffe, do engage the reader for a while; will they follow formula or break out of the mold? If they become social deviants, will it be in a typical fashion or by doing something genuinely unacceptable? The rigid social structure of the old Radcliffe was still in place when Adams and her characters attended the school-pincurls in one's hair at meals indicated a hot date, and Jews were not considered acceptable companions for same-but by getting hung up in a rather melodramatic plot, Adams manages to ignore the spirit of wartime Cambridge and burden the reader with a great deal of predictable activity.
The end result of this is that someone familiar with Harvard and Radcliffe doesn't get a complete feel for the place and time, while the general audience gets too much useless information. References to the Pudding and the Fly Club are fine as long as you indicate their relative significance, which Adams seldom does. In short, don't expect another Last Convertible. Or even Love Story.
Do expect more stereotyping than you might have thought possible, given the circumstances.
At points it's hard to separate sincerity from parody, and Adams' confusing use of the present tense doesn't help:
Cathy suddenly giggles again, clearly at some random thought, as she asks, "Did you ever read those really old books about girls' boarding schools? Grace Harlow or someone? There were a lot of them at a resort we used to go to. Anyway, there were always four girls. One beautiful and rich and wicked, and one big and fat and jolly. That's Lavinia and Peg, of course."
"I'm not the big jelly one?" Megan asks, somewhat anxiously.
"You're not so jolly. And Peg is much bigger than you are."
Cathy goes on. "I'm not too clear about the other two. I think one was poor and virtuous and the other one was very smart, or some combination like that."
Megan laughs, "Well, I'm poor and you're virtuous, and God knows both of us are smart, so I guess it'll work out all right?"
"I guess. But is Lavinia wicked, really?"
In a speculative way they regard each other, and then, again, they both begin to laugh.
Of course, Lavinia is wicked. And of course, she gets what she deserves, in an upper-class Washington, well-bred sort of way. The stereotypical WASP ice-week floating through life manipulating all comers, Lavinla does exactly what's expected from her marries well, reproduces, continues to make other people's lives miserable She's smart but so shallow that it's hard to tell if she recognizes the in significance of her own existence. After a while, you realize you've seen it before and, what's more, don't particularly care.
But it gets worse, far worse. Peg is big and jolly, and so blatantly maternal that any semi-conscious reader can see her realization that she is a lesbian coming years before she or her family does. Cathy, the only one of the four main characters who inspires not even the slightest bit of interest, turns out so typically that you can probably call it from right where you're sitting. She's a Catholic from Philadelphia, and her first serious boyfriend is a social outcast who sweeps her off her feet and then unaccountably dumps her--but then, she didn't tell her mother they were going out. She pursues a career instead of marrying a nice Catholic boy and--well, you just wouldn't believe what she and the friendly neighborhood priest wind up doing. Maybe Cathy deserves to end up the way she does, but again, it's hard to car.
Then there's Megan, central, unifying character that she is. A brief fling with a transplanted preppie while she's a California high school student drives her East, to the very place where he's in med school--you guessed it. She learns--the hard way, of course--the differences between bad girls and good girls, and goes about relieving herself of what she thinks of an her "technical virgin" status with every imaginable unacceptable type she runs across, including a Jewish "section man" and a Black jazz musician. She makes friends with a Jewish girls who winds up marrying an Irish playwright. They all go to Paris together for a while, then come back to New York to grow up. Yes, you're read all this before, possibly not written as gracefully but certainly done with a little more flair.
It's a shame these characters aren't more alive, or at least in a more convincing setting--one evocative of the Harvard-Radcliffe scene of 40 years ago. It's also a shame Superior Women didn't appear three months ago. It wouldn't be such a bad beach book.