“Who in the world are you?”

Alice Adams poses this question to herself in the mirror, and understandably so.  She’s a hard character to figure–an appealing one, I’m increasingly finding, but also one that’s hard to take seriously.  Her combination of pathological lying (almost all of which is aimed at the apparently eligible and infatuated Mr. Russell) with remarkably blunt honesty (again, directed primarily at a young man seemingly bewitched by her) is fun to read, but not easy to combine into a real young woman.  There’s some good stuff in this novel, mostly Alice’s increasing ability to open the eyes of Arthur Russell to the realities of life in town while simultaneously flirting in expert fashion.  It’s enjoyable to read their dialogues, although trouble is surely coming—she can’t keep lying to him without getting caught, and I don’t see this ending well.  Still, I give Tarkington credit: this is a much more believable relationship than Georgie Minafer had with Lucy.  He’s a capable enough writer in short bursts.  It’s the long haul that reveals his weaknesses in keeping the whole story together.

And while there’s more depth to Alice’s parents than I’d first seen, they really are a sort of second-rate Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (from Austen’s P&P).  Mr. Adams has all of Mr. Bennet’s long-suffering aggravation but with none of the wit and edge that makes Austen’s character clever and amusing.  And Mrs. Adams has all of Mrs. Bennet’s wheedling and passive-aggressive bullying, but with a total detachment from reality (and, frankly, a nearly-unhinged emotional life that overwhelms conversations) that makes her impossible to conduct a conversation with.  Every chat these two have starts out as a promising tactical combat of words, but quickly degenerates to a grating and unbearable weep-fest.

Overall, this is far better than I’d feared, given my earlier experiences with Tarkington, but still not so strong that I can see how a Pulitzer committee that chose Wharton the previous year managed to select this as a follow-up.  There just doesn’t seem to be much depth to the story.  I’m only half-way through, though, so we’ll see if things take a turn downstream.

“How shall I explain? … It’s always so. Each time you happen to me all over again.”

Newland Archer is becoming a sad little figure, but no less fascinating.  His desire to escape his society marriage to May Welland for the exotic allure of the Countess Ellen Olenska is getting caught up in many things—her lingering marriage to the unpleasant Count, her perhaps-not-concluded connection to the Frenchman who helped her “escape” her marriage, the financial ruin that Mr. and Mrs. Beaufort (relatives to both Ellen and May) now find themselves in, along with its resulting chaos in the tiny in-bred world of “the best families in New York”—it’s hard to see how much of the relationship is real, and how much is Newland getting swept up in the mere idea of something else.

I’m struck by Wharton’s repeated insistence that Newland can’t really remember Ellen…that he thinks of her constantly, but every time he sees her again, he realizes he’d forgotten what she looks like, how her voice sounds.  This most recent time he even comments on it to her directly (in the title to this post).  Am I meant to conclude that Newland doesn’t really care about her?  Or that his attachment to her is more spiritual/emotional than it is physical?  It’s hard to say.

What isn’t hard to say is that Ellen and May are both wiser about the world than Newland is.  May, in particular, manages to play the perfect upper class wife (so restrained, no cross word ever escapes her lips), but within that tension she manages to both keep Ellen well away from her husband, and communicate to Newland in no uncertain terms that she knows what’s happening, and she has no intention of losing him.  There is something both sad and admirable about May, who suspected before the wedding that Newland could not be fully hers, and married him anyway.  I hope Newland realizes her real value, and avoids hurting her any more than he already has.

And Ellen is no less realistic than May…and no less concerned about Newland.  Ellen’s great advantage, though, is the ability to tell him directly the truths that she is wise enough to understand, and that no one else in society could possibly tell him.  There are many passages that show how unequally matched she and Newland are, but I include the following as an exceptionally revealing exchange:

“Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress—since I can’t be your wife?” she asked.

The crudeness of the question startled him: the word was one that women of his class fought shy of, even when their talk flitted closest about the topic. … Her question pulled him up with a jerk, and he floundered.

“I want—I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that—categories like that—won’t exist.  Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.”

She drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh.  “Oh, my dear—where is that country?  Have you ever been there?” she asked; and as he remained sullenly dumb she went on: “I know so many who’ve tried to find it; and, believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayside stations: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo—and it wasn’t at all different from the old world they’d left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.”

How sharp she is, how devoid of “pretense”—she has seen the world and is weary of it, and not even love (for she truly does love Newland, I think) will erase the memories that are etched into her.  How can we blame Newland for loving her, at least a little?  For all of the good, admirable things about May, his wronged wife, there are no such bleak but true things in her heart for her to share with him, even if she would let herself be honest with him.  And May (and the rest of Newland’s friends and family) will never be honest with him: it may be an age of innocence, but it is also an age of deceit, where good people are expected to lie even to themselves (perhaps most of all to themselves).  My next post will be a review—by now you might have guessed that it will be a very positive one—and I’ll see what I make of the end of the book (which, even now, I couldn’t possibly predict with any confidence).