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.