In the South, or at least in Pinehill, North Carolina, the setting of Alice Adams's After the War
, "before the war" means before the Civil War. But in this sequel to A Southern Exposure
(which introduced the displaced Yankee Baird family, their Pinehill neighbors, and their kaleidoscopic liaisons, and which ended as World War II began), after the war refers to a more modern era: after the bomb, after the various men have come home, when everyone supposes life will begin again as they once knew it. An autumnal, nostalgic quality pervades Adams's posthumously published 11th novel, partly because Cynthia Baird is a little older (her daughter has left for college and her husband is a naval officer in England where bombs drop and ladies with "rose petal skin" who are "good at riding and gardening, cooking roast beef and puddings" threaten danger of another sort) and partly because from our perspective at the beginning of the 21st century we well know that life never will be the same.
With her delicate, breathy, gossipy prose, Adams slips among her characters like a hostess at a party. Soon the bits and pieces, confidences and asides, fit together into a mosaic of personalities and events that illuminate the coming political and social upheavals of the late '40s. At Swarthmore, ardent, open-minded Abby Baird falls in love with a Jewish physics major with Communist parents. Melanctha Byrd, traumatized by her body image, drops out of Harvard where her brother discovers he's gay. Out in Texas the poet Russ Byrd, who's contemplating writing a play featuring the secret laboratory at Los Alamos, meets an untimely end in the company of a decommissioned black sergeant, raising suspicions of foul play. Meanwhile, back in Pinehill, "people were more aware of the state of Cynthia's lawn and her flowers, of their own lawns and flowers, than of the terrible but distant war." Cynthia cultivates her garden, spars with poor, silly Dolly Bigelow, and carries on a desultory love affair with a war correspondent, until he replaces her with someone else. Pinehill is, after all, a small and complicated Southern town.
With the precise ear and acute observation of a modern Jane Austen, Alice Adams weaves an artful portrait of a town and a time, bittersweet for one generation, perilous and full of potential for the next. Like its predecessor, After the War is a gentle, generous, and enlightening comedy of manners. --Victoria Jenkins
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From Publishers Weekly
Reading this posthumous novel is a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, it's wonderful to be back in the Southern town of Pinehill, and to enjoy Adams's inimitable prose and her calm intimacy with the characters introduced in A Southern Exposure. On the other, it's a pity to realize that we'll never know what future lives Adams had planned for these vibrant individuals. WWII is raging as the novel opens in 1944; Yankee transplant Cynthia Baird is now "an actively unfaithful naval wife." Her husband, Harry, is stationed in London, and famed war correspondent Derek McFall is filling his bedDuntil Derek's roving eye takes him to another boudoir. The Bairds' daughter, Abigail, is off to Swarthmore, and her friend Melanctha Byrd will go to Radcliffe. Famous romantic poet Russ Byrd, Melanctha's father and once Cynthia's lover, is now married to luscious Deirdre, who will soon be on the loose to search for another partner. Implacably dignified Odessa, the black housekeeper, is worried about her husband, Horace, on duty in the Pacific. The usual large cast is augmented by the introduction of a New York Jewish couple with Hollywood ties, active members of the Communist Party, and their college-age children. Everybody is still lusting, drinking, filled with inchoate longings and awash with memories of past liaisonsDbut some are becoming aware of new social stresses: changing race relations, a freer sexual climate, the threat of communism. Adams's deep acquaintance with her milieuDSouthern speech, cultural assumptions, casual bigotry and lush landscapeDshines clear in events, dialogue and descriptive passages of almost palpable sensation. Her acuity with period details allows a smooth reference to the atomic bomb and the musical Oklahoma in the same sentence. There are innumerable funny scenes, two deaths, several fraying marriages and a few young romances, one of which culminates in a wedding. Adams knew the hard truths of human life: that people (especially those in the sway of sexual passion) often behave badly, but generally have good intentions; that hardship often prompts compassion in the most unlikely hearts; and that our time on life's stage is brief. Unfortunately, hers was too brief by far. (Sept.) FYI: Adams died in 1997.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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