A Southern Exposure

Alice Adams, Author
Alice Adams, Author Alfred A. Knopf $23 (305p) ISBN 978-0-679-44452-7
Reviewed on: 10/02/1995
Release date: 10/01/1995
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Her deft prose both sensual and sophisticated, Adams, in her ninth novel, leaves the San Francisco setting of her recent books (Almost Perfect, etc.) to explore the intrigues and desires of the residents of a small North Carolina town. The country is in the grip of the Depression when the bright and beautiful Bairds--Cynthia and Harry, and their young daughter, Abigail--move to Pinehill. ``They are, as they might half-ironically put it to each other, on the lam'' from their too demanding and expensive life in Connecticut. In fact, there is much half-ironic about the novel, including Cynthia's secret reason for choosing Pinehill: it is the home of her favorite (and rumored to be sexy) poet, Russ Byrd. As the Baird's determinedly climb Pinehill's tiny but formidable social ladder, they encounter people thoroughly entrenched in the communal hierarchy and in their environment; at parties, the cleverly unattributed dialogue gives the sense that the town is of one mind. And yet each of the dashing characters is distinct--Dolly Bigelow, the pretty gossip; Jimmy Hightower, a writer manque who shares Cynthia's fascination with Russ Byrd; Odessa, Dolly's servant, who seems as suspicious of Cynthia's passive disapproval of Southern segregation as she is of Dolly's overt racism. Meanwhile, Russ neglects his wife, who has a breakdown; has a passionate affair with the town beauty, who bears him a son whom she passes off as her younger brother; and eventually becomes himself ``helpless among the major passions of women''--including Cynthia's. Such melodramas feel witty, given Adams's intelligent characterization, and are at equal pitch with her descriptions of Pinehill's flush, distracting beauty. As always, her forte is the subtle misunderstandings and meshings of human relationships, viewed with both irony and compassion. (Oct.)
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