Sisters Under the Skin : CAROLINE’S DAUGHTERS <i> By Alice Adams</i> , <i> (Alfred A. Knopf: $22; 307 pp.) </i>

<i> Wolitzer's most recent novel is "Silver" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). </i>

Alice Adams’ excellent novels and short stories often focus on the lives of women, in relationship to one another and to the men they (sometimes unwisely) love. Her most recent previous novel, “Second Chances,” took on the subject of aging as well, with uncommon insight and honesty.

Now, in “Caroline’s Daughters,” she addresses the attachments and rivalries of five sisters in a multi-sired family. This absorbing new book takes place in the late 1980s in San Francisco, a place that Adams seems to know by heart. It’s where the eponymous Caroline Carter’s daughters all live, and where they cope with the variables of love and work and their ambivalent sense of one another.

Caroline herself, a handsome woman in her early 60s--"almost rich and almost old"--observes these children from her three marriages with a coolly critical eye. As the book opens, she and her third husband, Ralph, to whom she feels permanently married, have just returned from a five-year stay in Portugal. As Caroline tells us, it was her daughters who kept her away. Recognizing her considerable impact on them, she says, “I simply don’t want to be so present in their lives.” Once she and Ralph are back in town, however, they are both very much “present,” full of curiosity and speculation about these daughters, only one of whom, the youngest, Portia, 25, is biologically his.

Caroline’s eldest, the unconventionally beautiful, 41-year-old Sage, is the product of her early, brief marriage to Aaron Levine, who died in World War II. And her middle three--Liza, Fiona and Jill, all California blond and all in their 30s--are the daughters of Dr. Jim McAndrews, Caroline’s second husband, who also still lives in San Francisco. In addition to this extended family, there are the sisters’ husbands and lovers, a couple of whom, as it turns out, are shared by more than one woman.


Adams manages to keep her large--and largely affluent and self-absorbed--cast in lively motion against the backdrop of a society troubled by the more common issues of AIDS and poverty. Inevitably, though, some of these characters are more interesting than others.

Sage is especially so. Distinguished from her sisters by more than her dark-haired good looks, Sage is a former war activist who has transferred her energies to art and marriage without notable success with either. Now she’s a gifted, but unsung, ceramist, married to the handsome and restless Noel Finn, a carpenter seven years her junior.

Never having known her own father, she was reared, from age 3, by Jim McAndrews, for whom she still has unconsummated and unresolved incestuous feelings. This time-worn literary theme is handled with unusual subtlety and poignancy. “Their embrace at greeting, Sage and Jim’s, is always faintly indecisive, and there is awkwardness over kissing: cheeks, never mouths are aimed for, but sometimes it all goes wrong and mouths do brush, accidentally. Rather than hugging, they sometimes grip each other’s shoulders.”

In sublimation of her forbidden fantasies, Sage has had an affair with a married man of Jim’s age, a “well-known local lawyer-politico” named Roland Gallo. To complicate matters further, he’s also an acquaintance of her latest stepfather, Ralph. The ubiquitous Roland, with his urgent sexual appetite, runs like a persistent dark thread through the novel, seducing one sister and then another, as if he’s trying to make a run of the entire family. Roland is described as “quite bald, thick-bodied, middle-aged,” but even Caroline is eventually tempted by his unaccountable charms.


Despite, or perhaps because of the melodramatic events of their lives, the glamorous Fiona, who owns a trendy, successful restaurant, and Jill, a lawyer with a terrible secret, are less provocative and sympathetic than are the family bookends, Sage and Portia. Gentle, confused Portia is an offbeat character, the problematic child her parents believe will never “get ahead.” She hardly seems at home in her own frilly clothes, and even her concerned sisters find her odd. As Liza puts it, Portia appears “a little like a tall young boy in drag.” But her essential goodness, and Sage’s, makes one hope they will be purged of their respective demons and find peace and gratification.

Like a capricious fairy godmother, Alice Adams has endowed each of Caroline’s daughters with assets one or more of her sisters might covet: artistic talent, beauty, wealth, a constant husband, a pure heart. It is interesting to note that, for most of the novel, only Liza chooses to perpetuate the family with children of her own, and that these children make only the most minor appearance. But they are seen through Caroline’s eyes, and, characteristically, she refuses to sentimentalize them. “They’re quite nice enough, but after all only children,” she thinks. And even their own loving mother lusts toward art and away from the hearth.

But then, near the very end of “Caroline’s Daughters,” there is a completely unexpected but nonetheless welcome pregnancy in the family. And there is a death, too, one that forces Caroline out of her domestic inertia and back into an active role in the external world. Adams seems to be saying something cautiously hopeful about the future.

“Whatever have I done to deserve five daughters?” Caroline ruefully remarks early in the novel. Her generally dispassionate and ironic view of her grown children can be contagious, threatening the reader’s patience with them as well. But the daughters themselves, in their infinite variety and ardent pursuit of happiness, and unhappiness, ultimately prevail.

There is enough intrigue here to keep things animated and suspenseful, and enough sensual detail--more often related to food and clothing than to sex--to create a lush atmosphere.

There are some unfortunate tics in the writing, a repeated backstitch of second thoughts and too many parenthetical asides, but the present tense works surprisingly well, moving the story forward at a good clip and giving the events a sense of immediacy.

Despite its contemporary style, and its current setting and concerns, “Caroline’s Daughters” is a roomy and tantalizing old-fashioned read.