More Maude: Geriatric Vixens
THE LAST LOVELY CITY By Alice Adams Alfred A. Knopf Publishing 192 pp., $22
Sex is a recurrent theme in Alice Adams' latest collection of short stories, The Last Lovely City. Before you write her book off as fluffy beach reading, though, know that it isn't about just any kind of sex--this is about what one of the characters (embarrassed and somewhat surprised that she can still get crushes "at her age") calls "geriatric sex." This caveat, coupled with the novel's fun themes of loss, aging and solitude, might take this off the list of cheery summer flings.
Though it won't join Michael Crichton and Agatha Christie on your beach mat, there is plenty to recommend The Last Lovely City.
Although melancholy, it is never soppy. Adams' stories offer a sharply written, unsentimental look into the lives of a remarkable set of aging characters. The first nine stories, though unrelated, are alike in tone. They are peopled by educated characters who have led interesting, often highly fulfilling professional lives as successful musicians, actresses, writers. Now older, they reflect back on those lives and compare them to their present unsatisfying personal situations.
Throughout the book, changes in the city environment where the characters live seem to mirror their aging process. In "Old Love Affairs," Lucretia Baine, who is "almost old but lively," remembers her youth in San Francisco, when "the whole city seemed full of the relatively young and unmarried" and the youthful energy of the city had not yet been corrupted. Now, although she still excitedly wonders what to wear when an old acquaintance asks her to dinner, that freshness is gone, and she feels the city has grown older with her.
In the title story, Dr. Benito Zamora (a.k.a. "Dr. Do-Good" because of his charity work in his native Mexico) finds himself cripplingly alone and seeks to escape the city that is suddenly distasteful to him. A recent widower, he misreads his young lunch date's interest, and within an hour he is mentally married to a woman he had previously hardly remembered. This would be the perfect antidote to his distressing solitude: "she could brighten my life, he thinks, and lighten my home, all those rooms with their splendid views that seem to have darkened," and he wonders about what redecoration schemes she will choose. She is engaged, however, and Dr. Zamora's visions crumble. In his ensuing despondent mood, he finally faces long-ignored memories of his unsavory past in real-estate. Unhappy and old as he is, these memories spoil his love for the city. His sprawling house no longer seems innocently beautiful, and he muses "you know, the whole city seems so corrupt these days." Even as he decides to escape to Mexico, he realizes the flight is desperate. He won't find happiness there.
Several stories explore the characters' futile search for something that is no longer there. In "The Haunted Beach," art dealer Penelope has avoided a Mexican town for years because beautiful memories of it include a man she would rather forget. When she feels she has done so and goes back with a different companion, nothing is as she remembers it, and she vainly tries to recapture her past feelings for the place. Its perfect beauty, at least in her eyes, is gone. Just as she is less happy and older than on previous visits, now the grass is dingier, the buildings more rundown, the people less interesting than she recalls.
Women eclipse men in the book. Beautiful, flighty, intelligent, caustic, alcoholic, wily, unlovable, they are countless things, but never boring. Most male characters are secondary and not fully developed. The few male protagonists are consistently weaker--Doctor Zamora flees when he can't face his life. Carter, a college professor, is maddeningly passive in "His Women" and makes up with his ex-wife because he doesn't know what to do with himself now that he's alone. Adams smartly refuses to offer tidy explanations at the end of each story. The characters drives are ultimately a mystery. When the book is over we still don't understand why Julian needs his alcoholic pianist wife though he loves someone else, or why Alison goes back to Jack in "Great Sex," (the title refers to only a part of her motivation for returning). We feel their uncertainties--they don't really know why they do these things either. Adams' masterfully portrays a group of characters in search of self-knowledge. The stories that result are unvarnished and honest, and make for a deeply satisfying read.