This novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, tells the story of Alice Adams, a young woman who is determined to rise in society. Her father is kind-hearted and hardworking but content to be merely an employee at the factory of J.A. Lamb, the (unnamed) city’s most prominent businessman. He makes a decent salary, but it’s not enough for Alice to be able to mix in high society. Alice and her mother therefore continually badger her father to go into business for himself, which he eventually does — with disastrous consequences. Meanwhile, Alice meets the well-to-do Arthur Russell and immediately determines to marry him so that she can finally be the fine lady she’s always wanted to be.
I found this novel fascinating for several reasons. First, the plot manages to be suspenseful despite the ending’s inevitability; you know things are not going to end well for Alice, but you can’t help turning the pages in horrified fascination. Especially toward the end, when I could really see where things were heading, every terrible decision the Adamses made caused me to squirm. At the same time, I couldn’t help pitying Alice, her father and even her mother. They’re not bad people; they just think they’re entitled to a better lifestyle than they’re used to, and they don’t quite know how to get there. Alice is an especially interesting character. On the one hand, she’s basically a gold-digger, but she at least has enough self-awareness to realize that she’s being shallow. So I did enjoy this book, although in my opinion it’s not as good as Tarkington’s other Pulitzer-winning novel, The Magnificent Ambersons.