‘Beautiful Girl’ by Alice Adams

Beautiful Girl by Alice Adams, 1977

The magic trick:

Two forms of character building, both used to similar effect

Before I start – the main male character in this story is named Walpole. First name: Walpole. What in the world? That is my last name. It’s a good, if occasionally difficult to explain, spell, or pronounce, last name. But here, it’s a first name. And the other characters make fun of it!! Come on!!


This one has a little of Alice Munro to it, the way it bridges decades with ease. We get a combination character portrait – told and shown. We meet Ardis during a lonely drinking session at home. We are told that she was once a beauty. The story tells us various things about what her life was like back in college. Then, in a later section, the story goes back in time to those college years to show us what Ardis was like. As you would imagine, it’s a far more intimate, more evocative look at the character.

What most interests me is that these two kinds of portrait – told biographical backstory and then present-tense storytelling from the past – present the same picture of the woman. It’s not as if the scenes themselves suggest something different from the backstory. It’s consistent. The two complement each other, never contradict. There are no surprises, only an increased feeling of knowledge the reader has for this character.

And that’s quite a trick on Adams’s part.

The selection:

Twenty years ago Ardis was a small and slender black-haired girl, with amazing wide, thickly lashed dark-azure eyes and smooth, pale, almost translucent skin – a classic Southern beauty, except for the sexily curled, contemptuous mouth. And brilliant too: straight A’s at Chapel Hill. An infinitely promising, rarely lovely girl: everyone thought so.

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