Almost Perfect

Almost Perfect

by Alice Adams

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Overview


At the time Stella Blake meets Richard Fallon, she is nearly broke. Her semi-famous father, who has always neglected her, is dying. Her job at a San Francisco newspaper is only tentative. Richard, on the other hand, is wildly successful as a commercial artist, even if both his marriages to bosomy blondes have failed. Of course, he immediately notes that Stella is not his type, being small, dark, and exotic-looking. For her part, Stella thinks Richard is far too sure of himself, and vain. Naturally they fall in love. Theirs is an almost perfect relationship -- except for the violent fights followed by passionate reconciliations. And there is Stella's suddenly ascending career...and a shimmering San Francisco whose dark side is AIDS.

Something is terribly amiss with this golden couple, something one of them is only beginning to suspect. In Almost Perfect, Alice Adams creates her most searing account of modern relationships when illusions crack, secrets seep out, and women face the consequences of falling madly in love.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780449148921
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/01/1994
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 4.22(w) x 6.83(h) x 0.86(d)

About the Author

Alice Adams, born in Virginia and educated at Radcliffe College, is the author of ten highly praised novels. Her short stories have appeared in twenty-two O. Henry Award scollections and several volumes of Best American Short Stories. She has been the recipient of an Academy and Institute Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Ms. Adams' other novels include Superior Women, a New York Times bestseller, and Medicine Men, both published by Washington Square Press. She lives in San Francisco.

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Chapter 1

Stella Blake, small and dark, huge-eyed, faintly foreign-looking, scared, walks along the broken sidewalk of an unfamiliar street, in an unnatural warm and reddish October dusk. Potrero Hill, San Francisco.

The houses here are small and undistinguished, mostly stucco, one-story, although a couple have been remodelled and sport new brown shingles and broad, aluminum-sashed windows and bright brass plates on their doors.

The wide street is so empty that Stella wonders, Where is everyone? Is something happening that she doesn't know about? but then quite suddenly, planted there on the sidewalk in front of her (how can she have got there?) is a tiny black girl, her hair in cornrows and her dress long and purple, old purple, old velvet. A mother's dress. And this small person, her voice surprisingly loud, demands of Stella, "Do you know what you're going to be on Halloween?"

Thinking, I don't know what I'm going to be tomorrow, or next week, much less on Halloween, Stella simply says, "No. I don't know."

"But you have to know." A tiny scowl. "I be a queen. But I could change my mind. I could. Then I be Michael Jackson."

"I guess I'd better decide too."

"Well, you better. Girl, you better had." And the tiny girl, out of breath and maybe out of bravado too, takes off, running up across a yellowed lawn, disappearing into shadows.

Thinking, It's true, I really don't know what I'll be next week -- among other uncertainties, her newspaper job is quite provisional -- Stella quite sensibly decides not to make too much of this incident, any more than she would of a random horoscope reading (LEO: Do not engage in expensive activitiesduring this period). She will not even tell anyone about it, despite its obvious anecdotal value.

The immediate cause of Stella's fears and uncertainties is the fact that she is heading toward an interview; her current job includes a lot of interviewing (it is what she is supposed to be good at), and so she should not be frightened -- but in this case it is she who is the subject, interviewee rather than interviewer. And the real subject is not herself but her father: Prentice Blake, now dying in Patchen Place, in Greenwich Village. Prentice, a small-time novelist and part-time Stalinist who fought in Spain in the Thirties, was a minor figure himself, but he always knew the important, major figures: Hemingway (of course), and Cummings was a neighbor, Allen Tate, Djuna Barnes -- he knew them all. Prentice Blake was known for his great good looks, his "charm," his love affairs and marriages, rather than for his fiction, or for his war record, which was honorable but slight, as his novels were, full of fairly foolish political monologues.

But the very idea of being questioned about her father, being called to account for him, so to speak, scares Stella badly. She is his only child; the other wives, as Prentice likes to point out, were more careful. Stella's mother was Delia, known as Prentice's Mexican beauty -- hence Stella's dark Indian eyes, her slightly exotic look.

She stumbles, retrieves her balance, and wishes she had yielded to the actuality of this weather, rather than to some abstract, eastern notion of fall; she should have worn a cotton dress, or jeans. In her sweater and blazer, wool skirt and high-heeled boots, she is hot, and she must look like some Sixties throwback (which in a sense she feels that she is), and she wonders, What have I dressed for? for whom?

The interviewer, out from New York, has a name that Stella finds promising: Simon Daniels. She likes the sound of it, and she is also impressed (and frightened) by his credentials, his New York Review-Critical Inquiry-Raritan status. But: he will be impossibly tall, small-eyed and bucktoothed, and married and/or gay, Stella tells herself, even as she despises the neediness that adds erotic fantasies to a professional courtesy, and she reminds herself that it is nice of her to take the time to talk to him, when she is both busy and loath to talk about her father, who almost never gave her the time of day, as it were. Who will die soon and will not have left her a cent, despite all his talk of her inheritance. She chides herself for this last greedy thought, so ugly, but it is true that Prentice is very bad about money (rebellious son of New England Republicans, given equally to extravagance and to thrift, both in extremes), and it is true too that Stella at this moment is close to broke.

In any case, this is to be a long day: after Simon Daniels she has to go over to North Beach to do an interview of her own, for the paper. Some advertising jerk, Richard Fallon. Or Dallon. She has to check her notes.

Just now the sunset is blazingly reflected in all the windows of Oakland, across the bay, so that dangerous, problematic Oakland, and Berkeley too, are glorious, golden cities, promising everything. Leading eastward.

Simon Daniels, who opens the door several frightening moments after her knock, is indeed very tall. Bald, spectacled, gentle-voiced and reassuringly rumpled. Possibly gay. In any case, very nice; that comes through at once in his small gestures of leading her into the room and in his thanks that she has troubled, taken the time, to come and talk to him.

But the room itself is bare. Some bentwood chairs, a folding table, and a bookcase in which all the spines of the books are dead upright are all that Stella first sees in that room. Presumably there are other rooms, with beds, a kitchen, some human mess, somewhere. Or so Stella hopes.

Simon has said that he is visiting a painter friend. "Jake is more than a little crazy," he explains, no doubt feeling the shock of her glance at such emptiness. "Have you ever seen his work? The minimalists' minimalist." He smiles. "It's going to be hard on both of us, talking here. I'll feel like an inquisitor, if not a very grand one, and you'll feel...I can't quite imagine."

"Like a patient." This quite unintentional remark, once spoken, Stella recognizes as the truth; in her fantasies of visiting a shrink, which she has not so far done, she sits in a bare room with a strange tall man. And talks about her father.

However, as they sit down, facing each other on the hard spare chairs, Simon consciously or not soon dispels this notion -- with a great flow of conversation about himself. Which Stella of course recognizes as standard interviewing technique, but she is nevertheless reassured and somewhat seduced, seduced into thinking of him as a trusted old friend.

"My father must have been about the perfect opposite of yours," announces Simon. "Dr. Dull. Harvard, Harvard Med. Beth Israel internship. A stint in the navy, then marriage to a princess from Beverly Hills, and four happy little children. Pediatrics in Pasadena. Aren't doctors strange, don't you think? Such hermetic worlds. And his affection for children borders on the obscene."

"My father can't stand children," Stella tells him, Pavlov-obedient. "I think the competition. That's one of the things he held against my mother, her having a child."

"Well, at least he must have been pretty interesting, to have around. My father bores me into screaming fits. I'm sure I turned queer just to get his goat."

Oh. "Well, Prentice could be pretty boring, actually. The same old stories so often, you know. The boasting, which of course got worse as he got older, with less to brag about. The name-drops." Acute anxiety beats in Stella's breast as she speaks of Prentice in this way. But it's all right, she tells herself. Prentice won't know (or will he?).

"Did you like it better living in Mexico with your mother?" asks Simon.

"Sort of. But we were pretty broke. Poor is more like it. Prentice didn't send money when he said he would. And we were in Cuernavaca, among all those rich gringos. My mother's friends. I really dislike that city."

"Actually so do I. No traces of the Lowrys, right? Such an odd place for them to have chosen, I've always thought."

"Cuernavaca's changed a lot. Since I was there, and I'm sure even more since the Thirties, or whenever they were there. But the best part is still those volcanoes. The way you suddenly see them, in different lights."

And so on.

Simon leads her intelligently with his own confessions and observations, to which Stella adds her own, quite forgetting, as she herself has watched and heard her own interviewees forget, that only one side of this conversation will appear in print.

Indeed, as she might have with a shrink, Stella tells this strange man (but so nice, so seductively nice, intelligent and interested -- oh, ever so interested), tells him the tales of later wives and girlfriends of Prentice's. And what she herself as a child experienced as non-love. As neglect. Disapproval.

"Prentice has a trick of kicking you when you're down," says Stella to this new friend. "Of saying something to make you feel a lot worse than you already feel." She even says, "I really dread his death. One more body blow."

"He doesn't exactly have a reputation for kindness. But then I guess being kind was held to be a little sissy in his day." Simon laughs.

"I guess. He was really concerned with that macho stuff. 'Not man enough' was one of his favorite expressions. Or taunts. Even to me. He would say that I wasn't 'man enough' for something. Even when I was little I thought that was sort of odd."

"Indeed." He stares at her, and then Simon Daniels says, "Do you have any idea how beautiful you are? No? I didn't think so. And actually not quite yet; I'd put it about ten years off. Some women are like that, you know. They just have to wait, sometimes for middle age. But the shape of your forehead -- lovely! And those eyes."

Very embarrassed, Stella finds nothing to say in response to this. She ducks her head, she mutters, "Well, thank you."

"Well, back to old Prentice. Tell me, when you were a kid, did he talk much about the circumstances of his break with the Party?"

Because she is running a little late, and because, calculatedly or not, Simon Daniels has come across so sympathetically (he even promised to send her the pages in which she figures, a rare professional courtesy), Stella treats herself to a cab, Potrero Hill to North Beach, in the darkening, strangely warm evening.

That encounter with Simon Daniels was indeed positive, thinks Stella, noting too her uncharacteristic lack of guilt at having (to some extent) bad-mouthed Prentice. Her lack of fear. She even experiences a sort of relief -- as though Simon had indeed been a shrink instead of an interviewer.

Driven through unfamiliar streets, in the broken back seat of the Yellow Cab, to Stella the city itself seems suddenly strange, almost foreign. She could be almost anywhere at all, she thinks, anywhere thousands of miles from San Francisco.

She could be in New York, in the late Sixties, racing toward an interview with Liam O'Gara, the director, with whom over the course of several years, the years of her own late teens, she had a momentous love affair. For several years and over several continents. Stella, in those days looking barely older than a child, used to fly with Liam to Rome and to Lisbon for a couple of days, to Edinburgh and at last to Mexico, where Liam had managed an actual job for her. On the set of Black Hacienda, Liam's last great film, Stella worked in Oaxaca and Morelia and in Zihautanejo, in the crumbling, beautiful Hotel Catalina, where the last scenes of the film were shot and where Liam and Stella played out some of their own final hours, among all that brilliant flowing bougainvillea, over too many, too sweet margaritas.

Stella's divided life, in those days, was mad; she was wrenched, almost crazed, by the contrast between her daily "normal" life in a dingy West Side apartment -- grubbing along on sparse newspaper assignments and taking classes at Hunter, shopping for bargains, skipping meals -- and her precipitous first-class flights to Liam, wherever he was, to Liam and his entourage, all that talk and drinking; some drugs; exotic food flown in. The passion and the sleeplessness (like many geniuses that Stella had read about, Liam had almost no need for sleep). The endless talk, the strange wild presents: flowers, impossible jewelry, brilliant dresses. The love. A queen of nowhere, she had felt herself to be: a small half-Mexican, half-Anglo princess of nothing. Liam's street child. His waif. Then rushing back to her grubby jobs and her classes.

Sheer unreality, though, was helpful in the end; Stella suffered, but what she felt was in a sense literary, an aesthetic pain. She suffered and watched herself suffering, and both were quite apart from her daily life. She broke with Liam, and after a year or so of solitary pain, she had what she thought of as "relationships" with a couple of other men. Not love affairs.

But now, in the taxi that hurries through darkened streets, under freeways, skirting monumental abutments, passing dingy south-of-Market hotels and derelict bars and bright seedy restaurants, despite the generally drab ambiance of the city at night, Stella feels a suddenly recovered sense of adventure, as though she were indeed in a country where Liam was, perhaps even Mexico. Rushing to meet him. Running late, out of breath. She suddenly misses Liam, as she has not missed him for years.

When at last the cab stops, she is surprised, though she quickly sees exactly where they are: on Pacific, where the old International Settlement used to be (Stella once did a feature for the Sunday paper on this particular bit of San Francisco history). Near Jackson Square. But they have stopped at a building that looks to be boarded up. However, this is the right address; getting out of the cab, Stella sees that indeed there is a door, cut into the boarding. And as she looks more closely, she sees a tiny card, rather casually tacked above the knob: R. FALLON.

And a button. She rings, and hears an inner buzz. And then no sounds at all.

And then, as she is about to turn and leave, she hears very heavy fast footsteps, clearly a man's. The door opens, and a very out-of-breath, very large man stands there, staring down at her -- as she looks up to rumpled blond hair that is haloed by the light. His shadowed face is almost invisible. A tall man in a bathrobe, and barefoot, who is saying, "Jesus Christ! I forgot. Oh God!"

A very deep voice, very attractive -- perhaps self-consciously so? Somewhere Stella registers vanity.

"I forgot!" he tells her again. "But do you want a drink? I can't talk now," he adds. "Too disorganized."

Angry, and confused (does he mean have a drink now instead of the interview?), Stella tells him that it's perfectly all right. She is tired, is happy just to go home (that much at least is true).

"Can I drive you? My car's right here. I could dress --"

No, she can very easily get a cab on Broadway. And she starts away from him, even as his deep, rounded voice is saying, "Will you call me? At least let me buy you a drink?"

In a pig's eye, is what Stella thinks, as she turns to wave, intending a definitive farewell.

Call him? He must be crazy, she thinks, as she hurries along toward the brighter lights.

So much for Richard Fallon.

Copyright © 1993 by Alice Adams

Reading Group Guide


The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion of Alice Adams' Almost Perfect. We hope that these ideas will enrich your discussion and enjoyment of the book.

Reading Group Discussion Points
  1. Stella's memories of her uncaring father, Prentice, surface often throughout the novel. What parallels do you see in her feelings for her father and her attraction to Richard? To Liam O'Gara?
  2. Richard is a master of appearances, including clothes, architecture, and interior design. When Stella is getting to know Richard, she wonders, "Can a person be deeply superficial?" What does she discover beneath Richard's mastery of surfaces?
  3. Early in her relationship with Richard, Stella finds herself becoming obsessively concerned about her appearance. She feels that her clothes are dowdy and her looks are somehow inadequate. She realizes that this focus is wrong, but she can't seem to help it. What does Richard do to bring out these feelings? What elements in our society encourage women to focus negatively on their appearance?
  4. Stella is often conscious that she is in love with Richard but that she sometimes does not like him very much. Discuss the role of "love" versus "like" in the relationships of the novel's many couples, including Stella and Richard, Margot and Andrew, Justine and Collin, and Richard and Andrew.
  5. At the beginning of their love affair, Stella wonders if Richard is an alcoholic or just someone who sometimes drinks too much. What role does alcohol play in their relationship? Would it have beendifferent with no alcohol involved?
  6. Stella and Richard argue about which one of them is crazy. What do you think constitutes madness? Are either or both of them crazy?
  7. Stella and Richard's love affair is characterized by an almost overwhelming attraction. Is their attraction believable? What convinces you? Is it more or less realistic than the other characters' love affairs in Almost Perfect?
  8. Adams often contrasts Richard's tall, blond, Northern European physique to Stella's short, dark, Mexican appearance, perhaps even suggesting that a blond lover like Eva duplicates Richard whereas Stella could complete him. Is Richard's attraction to tall blondes like Eva and Claudia different from his attraction to Stella? Compare Richard's feelings for Stella to the pleasure and peace he finds walking the streets of Mexico City.
  9. Stella often feels nervous, even panicked, during her time with Richard. How does Richard keep her perpetually on edge? How does Adams' characterization of Richard contribute to the novel's foreboding and suspense?
  10. Near the end of Almost Perfect, Stella realizes that the deep flaws in her relationship with Richard can never be fixed, that "whatever is wrong is blackly rooted around their hearts, their brains and guts, requiring surgery that would kill them in the process." Do you agree that the qualities that drew them together cannot be changed?

Introduction

The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion of Alice Adams' Almost Perfect. We hope that these ideas will enrich your discussion and enjoyment of the book.

Reading Group Discussion Points
  1. Stella's memories of her uncaring father, Prentice, surface often throughout the novel. What parallels do you see in her feelings for her father and her attraction to Richard? To Liam O'Gara?
  2. Richard is a master of appearances, including clothes, architecture, and interior design. When Stella is getting to know Richard, she wonders, "Can a person be deeply superficial?" What does she discover beneath Richard's mastery of surfaces?
  3. Early in her relationship with Richard, Stella finds herself becoming obsessively concerned about her appearance. She feels that her clothes are dowdy and her looks are somehow inadequate. She realizes that this focus is wrong, but she can't seem to help it. What does Richard do to bring out these feelings? What elements in our society encourage women to focus negatively on their appearance?
  4. Stella is often conscious that she is in love with Richard but that she sometimes does not like him very much. Discuss the role of "love" versus "like" in the relationships of the novel's many couples, including Stella and Richard, Margot and Andrew, Justine and Collin, and Richard and Andrew.
  5. At the beginning of their love affair, Stella wonders if Richard is an alcoholic or just someone who sometimes drinks too much. What role does alcohol play in their relationship? Would it have been different with no alcoholinvolved?
  6. Stella and Richard argue about which one of them is crazy. What do you think constitutes madness? Are either or both of them crazy?
  7. Stella and Richard's love affair is characterized by an almost overwhelming attraction. Is their attraction believable? What convinces you? Is it more or less realistic than the other characters' love affairs in Almost Perfect?
  8. Adams often contrasts Richard's tall, blond, Northern European physique to Stella's short, dark, Mexican appearance, perhaps even suggesting that a blond lover like Eva duplicates Richard whereas Stella could complete him. Is Richard's attraction to tall blondes like Eva and Claudia different from his attraction to Stella? Compare Richard's feelings for Stella to the pleasure and peace he finds walking the streets of Mexico City.
  9. Stella often feels nervous, even panicked, during her time with Richard. How does Richard keep her perpetually on edge? How does Adams' characterization of Richard contribute to the novel's foreboding and suspense?
  10. Near the end of Almost Perfect, Stella realizes that the deep flaws in her relationship with Richard can never be fixed, that "whatever is wrong is blackly rooted around their hearts, their brains and guts, requiring surgery that would kill them in the process." Do you agree that the qualities that drew them together cannot be changed?

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Almost Perfect 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Richard arrives, bearing wine and sometimes bourbon, often flowers, and after an endless languishing kiss at the door, they settle in the living room for several drinks. For talking, for kissing.' I just had to read this book, having just completed Superior Women by this author. I found this book rather entertaining with a multitude of characters of the art a literary world. The couple in the story, Stella Blake and Richard Fallon seems to have the world at their feet for them, and they are compatible in many ways. They both love cooking for each other, dining out at exotic restaurants, and they truly seem to love each other very much. But do they really? For Richard Fallon is a dificult man, sometimes hard to please and poor Stella finds herself sometimes trying too hard. That's the mystery of it all and the reason this book is called Almost Perfect, so you must read on and see what happens when the party decorations come down and life challenges are thrown their way. Almost Perfect held my interest and attention, and I highly recommend it. Reviewed by Heather Marshall Negahdar Bridgetown, BARBADOS 04/03/06)