Reviewed: “Superior Women” by Alice Adams

The women in Alice Adams’ SUPERIOR WOMEN certainly do think they are ‘superior.’ And they are really not. They are in turn ordinary, awful, bland, and absolutely normal women. It doesn’t make for a particularly compelling story, because they can be so bland it’s hard to even enjoy rooting against them.

SUPERIOR WOMEN is the story of Megan, Lavinia, Peg, and Cathy who meet as freshmen at Radcliffe College in 1942. It’s hard to tell if they ever actually like each other enough to actually qualify for the definition of ‘good friends’ but they remain somewhat inexplicably dedicated to each other for forty years, i.e. the span of Adams’ novel. Dedicated might not be the right word either. It’s more like they ‘use’ each other, find some deeper meaning in themselves because they count the other three as ‘friends.’ There was one scene early on where Peg or Cathy, by far the two most interesting of the four… and the two who get the least attention from Adams, remembers reading books as a child where a there were always four friends, each of whom ticked some box and she decides they fit that. That’s a good summary of the story.

The novel was originally published in 1985 and Alice Adams was a graduate of Radcliffe College so she was writing what she knew. And, from the perspective of 2020, what she knew was not good.

Lavinia especially is utterly offensive, and I feel like she would have been equally as offensive in 1942 and 1982 as she is in 2020. She’s a blatantly racist, unapologetically anti-Semtitic who makes herself feel better by making others feel smaller. Even her so-called friends. Peg becomes Peglet, she’s certain and horrified Cathy might be a lesbian, and she constantly thinks of, and outright says, that Megan is fat and oversexed. I don’t think Alice Adams meant for the reader to like Lavinia, the wealthy daughter of the South, but I do wish she’d spent less time on her. Or used less stereotypes, offensive names, and outright slurs.

Megan is the ‘superior woman’ we meet first, falling head over heels for a college boy while she’s in high school. She actually moves from California to attend Radcliffe in Massachusetts to be near him. Megan should be a progressive, liberated woman. That’s how she should come off. She becomes a force in her field but never marries or has children. She has lovers, lovers who last decades on-and-off, and she is the best friend to the other three. But… she’s also horrible to her parents and awfully self-centered.

I don’t know what life was like at Radcliffe College in the 1940s or what the lives of definitely upper middle class women was between the 1940s and the 1980s, so I can’t say if this story is outlandish or exaggerated. It feels like it is. But I can’t judge on accuracy, like whether or not three of four friends might’ve had flings with the same man thirty years after college. What I can judge on is how it reads as a novel.

And that’s… passable.

There was too much back-and-forth between scenes. A chapter would start with Megan visiting Cathy and suddenly she’s in bed with Jackson before it’s back to Cathy?

But basically, everything seemed exaggerated and, therefore, had to believe.

(I received a copy of SUPERIOR WOMEN through NetGalley and Scribner in exchange for an honest and original review.)

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