Alumna Book Forum Review: All the Finest Girls falls short

by Alexandra Ley


Alexandra Styron, BC ’87,
daughter of acclaimed author
William Styron

The arrival of a free book in her mailbox the summer before they move to Morningside Heights is one of the first Barnard traditions that all new students experience. Every year, Barnard’s division of Columbia University’s New Student Orientation Program (NSOP) includes a lunch and lecture/reading by a published Barnard alumna. Like Columbia College and the Iliad, Barnard sends out a copy of the selected book to each new student and encourages them to read it over the summer. This year’s chosen novel is All the Finest Girls by Alexandra Styron, BC ’87 and while the book lacks invigorating style and substance, this year’s Alumna Book Forum (Thursday, 1:30pm-3pm) still promises to be an exciting highlight of NSOP.

Styron’s novel tells the story of Adelaide Abraham, a middle-aged, upper-class woman whose emotional week in the Caribbean helps her overcome anxieties about her past and present. Adelaide grew up in a privileged Connecticut family with feuding parents and found stability solely in her childhood nanny Louise. After Louise unexpectedly dies, Adelaide feels drawn to attend her funeral and get to know her family, who are not as inclined to form a connection with her. The chapters alternate between two modes: one in realistic language chronicling Adelaide’s time in the Caribbean and her recent life history, and another in poetic Modernist language describing Adelaide’s troubled childhood mind. Styron just achieves the emotional gravity she probably intended with this novel while seeming to draw from her own experiences growing up in an upper-class town in Connecticut, but only skims the surface of Adelaide’s memories. She often halts characters’ midway through their development, when all of a sudden they disappear without having made much progress in the storyline.

“Styron seems to have written this book for herself, aiming to create a new kind of Holden Caulfield figure whose confused psychological makeup is shown in the language of a Faulkner novel, but it simply does not translate to the average reader.”

Reading All The Finest Girls reminded me of comments I have gotten on many English papers that can be best summarized as “you know what you’re trying to say, but your writing doesn’t really let the rest of us know what it is.” Styron seems to have written this book for herself, aiming to create a new kind of Holden Caulfield figure whose confused psychological makeup is shown in the language of Faulkner novel, but it simply does not translate to the average reader. The result is a tedious string of events that do not result in any kind of feeling of Adelaide’s catharsis or completion of a journey. It really makes one wonder if Styron’s career as a writer would really prevail without the recognition of her literary bloodline; her only other published book, Reading My Father, is a memoir of her experience growing up as the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning William Styron, author of such classics as Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner. All The Finest Girls almost looks like a weak freshman attempt at joining in on the family business that does not quite reach its full potential because the story just limps along.

Still, Styron’s speech, reading, and signing event on Thursday afternoon could be a great opportunity to hear a successful Barnard alumna talk about her experience in the writing and publishing world, as well as a rare opportunity for William Styron fans to hear about Styron’s life as the daughter of a famed author. Styron will be sticking around until 2:55 to sign books as well, so bring your copy to the Diana Event Oval at 1:00 on Thursday!

Image courtesy of The West Tisbury Library Foundation, Inc. and Good Reads.

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