Picks and Pans Review: Second Chances

updated 05/30/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/30/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Alice Adams

The bookstores are hardly overflowing with absorbing, touching yet unsentimental novels about the lives of mostly average, middle-class, elderly people. Even if they were, though, this book would stand out. Adams' first novel since Superior Women in 1984 is set in a coastal California town near San Francisco. The principal characters—magazine writer Dudley and her artist husband, Sam, the recently widowed Celeste, former radical Polly, real estate salesman Edward and his gay lover, Freddy—are mostly in their 60s; only Sara, who comes to live with Celeste, is relatively young, and she's almost 40. Their preoccupations are predictable: loneliness, death, an inability to communicate their fears. Adams writes of Celeste, "We are all older than we look, than we feel, she hears from some rude interior voice. We are older than middle-aged. We are almost old, we're a party tonight of nearly old people. We are the sort of people I used to look at and wonder why they even bothered getting so dressed up." The second chances of the title have to do with attempts—sometimes heartbreakingly futile—to get love right, to come to an understanding at least with someone new or someone familiar. Edward and Freddy talk mostly about AIDS. Dudley thinks about doing an article to argue against all the paeans to geriatric sex because mainly it seems to be too much trouble. She thinks about what having a man means: "The happy solution to most of her major problems—namely, loneliness and lack of money. If only it would also cure her arthritis, is an inadvertent, unruly additional thought." Only Sara seems to have a real second chance—with an old boyfriend from her '60s radical days—but she too is fitful. The appearance of a character who turns out to be a CIA representative Sara knew 20 years before seems too huge a coincidence, and Adams, who otherwise shifts smoothly from one point of view to another, has too many people thinking in labels—"wild bad Sam," "defiant Sara," "false-innocent Sara." But she keeps the melodrama to a minimum, concentrating on the quiet struggles of her characters. While they can't win most of their battles, their very human determination, grim though it is, lends them and the novel a certain nobility. (Knopf, $18.95)

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