Cara Blue Adams's collection of interwoven short stories, You Never Get It Back, opens like this: “I met loss the other day. I took his measurements. My yellow tape looped around my arm, pins held tight between pursed lips, I circled him. I measured his thin wrists, his frail neck, his elegantly sloped shoulders [...].”
This prelude - an allegory, really - zeroes in on “people unwilling to let go of what was gone.” It's beautifully bookended by the collection's last story, “Desert Light,” which treats the notion of gain, albeit with hesitations.
Such intention in pessimistic times pulls Adams' reader forward - often from uncertainty, always into clarity.
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Adams, 42, is a tenured associate professor of creative writing at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. Growing up in Putney, she attended Putney Central and Brattleboro Union High School, from which she graduated in 1995.
From there she went to Smith College to earn a bachelor's degree in English, then to University of Arizona for her master's degree in creative writing.
Adams credits her mother, Liz Adams, still of Putney, with turning her on to a world of books.
“I've always been a big reader; my mother would read to me when I was a child, and I'd ask for more and more,” she recalled. “There was not much TV growing up. Books were the landscape of my life, and [they] are part of the landscape of my own stories, too.”
Among Adams's early influencers were Teri Appel, who retired in 2020 as English teacher at BUHS.
“She was wonderful,” Adams said. “We had to pick a writer to research in depth. I chose Sylvia Plath -read all she wrote, from her juvenilia to her poetry and prose.”
Adams notes, too, the impact of works by Jhumpa Lahiri, Edward P. Jones, Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, Italo Calvino, Elizabeth Strout, W. S. Merwin, and Elizabeth Bishop.
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Adams has had stories published in top literary magazines - among them Granta, The Kenyon Review, Narrative, Alaska Quarterly Review, American Short Fiction, Epoch, The Mississippi Review, The Sun, and Story.
Selections from her collection have been awarded first prize in the Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest, the Missouri Review's William Peden Prize in Fiction, and the ALSCW Meringoff Writing Award in Fiction.
The full collection received the prestigious John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa Press.
Adams has been honored with support from a host of top writers' conferences, including Middlebury College's Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.
“The [four] Bread Loaf summers were some of the happiest of my life,” Adams said. “It's so beautiful there with such a rich sense of community.”
“I made some of my closest writer friends there,” she said, noting that she benefitted not only from agents and editors who populate each conference but also from the faculty writers.
“A more expansive, nuanced understanding of craft is the most important thing I [gained there],” she said.
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Adams's new book, You Never Get It Back, is 12 brilliant stories presented in three sections. The glue among them is lead character, Kate Bishop, and her bohemian mother and envelope-pushing sister.
In the titular story, we witness struggles around class, race, love, callings: The privileged and the less-than-so are contrasted with precision in Kate and her college friend, Esme.
Adams is expert at brevity, at working the language. Her rich imagery is like candy in lines such as “Esme laughed at this, the rustle of a dry leaf scraping against concrete,” and “His eyes were light, luminous yellow feldspar set in a field of white sclera.”
Her description of Christmas dinner with family in “Charity” makes one squirm.
“Dinner is quiet. No one knows what to say. It is like dinner with strangers, but more treacherous. We pass the serving dishes efficiently, a line of sandbaggers moving to stanch a leak. [...] We eat fast.”
This get-me-out-of-here occasion's easy to understand: These family members haven't quite figured out how to love each other well; one, in fact, is discovered feeding Kate's mother's gift of zucchini bread to the birds, only exacerbating prevalent strife.
With well-timed wry wit, Adams steers a moment from the edge of dark to laugh-out-loud with complex ironies and quirks of both character and situation.
Metacognitive awareness pops up throughout the pages, as in “Vision,” when Kate, on a writer's residency in Virginia, says, “In my novel, people moved around rooms. They picked up objects, spoke to each other. I couldn't find it in myself to care. I changed their genders, but that did not help. [...] My characters talked amongst themselves. I strained to hear them, but they wanted privacy.”
Kate dissects the writing she's attempting there.
“It was when the sentences piled on each other like logs making a hut that the thing became truly awful,” she says. “This was, I imagined, like painting: you added color after color and you created an ugly brown.”
Eventually, she says, “In my studio, I read. I was done writing. I was afraid, but I fed the horse outside my studio window.” Such quick shifts could seem glib were they not so central to Kate's character as, in opening the last story, she says, bluntly honest, “the wedding is tomorrow if we don't call it off.”
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The collection's geography pans Southwest to South to New England - Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont. Adams evokes a setting as if it were another full-dimensioned character.
In “Sea Latch,” for instance: “Crossing the hot, sticky asphalt to the deserted-looking pool, flip flops adhering to the tar and pulling away with a Velcro-like sound, I spot my mother and sister through the chain-link fence. [...] No one is swimming, and the lifeguard chair sits empty. The guests only sign, hopeful and unnecessary, peels at its laminate edges.”
Allusions in these stories are rich and vast - from Hrotsvitha (a 10th-century German poet/playwright) to Faulkner; from Millay to Hemingway, from whose story “Hills Like White Elephants” the opening story's title is taken.
Such allusions don't alienate; instead, they deepen Kate's character.
Real issues roil Kate's studied calm: racial and gender tension, family complications, suicide, struggles with direction, misguided romance, a dog put down, tough financial times, general generational meandering.
Through Kate Bishop, Adams tells what it's like to be a young woman now.
In a #MeToo context, Kate could be a victim, but, Adams notes, she was not conceived through that lens.
Instead, Adams aims to develop a “nuanced language” that will set the scene for evolving discourse around such issues.
“I think all of us face difficult things in our lives - circumstances, aspects of culture,” she said.
Kate faces plenty of difficulty, but she finds community and agency in her navigations.
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Interwoven, the stories paint a picture of our times, of a generation that seems to want hope despite its jadedness. We feel that in Kate's sweet nature that percolates throughout.
The degree of autobiography in You Never Get It Back appears in gray, Adams explains: “I take a lot from my life and I invent a lot.”
For Adams, as for Kate, there were no silver spoons.
“I know what economic struggle means,” Adams asserts; she also knows the power of the positive, as in “Seeing Clear,” in which Kate envisions herself far from family strife in college. She fantasizes it as “a place [where] I might walk straight out of my unhappiness and into a brochure.”
In a recent conversation, Adams noted that the high praise for You Never Get It Back - from The New York Times, The Chicago Review of Books, and Publishers Weekly, among others - has been “incredible: a happy dream.”
Adams and her partner, writer/editor/professor Cam Terwilliger, currently split time between a small apartment in Brooklyn and a place in Beacon, N.Y., but Vermont remains at Adams's core.
“It is such a unique place. I loved growing up there and [lately it's] become clearer how special it is in terms of the state's commitment to community, education, arts, beauty,” she said.
With its intensity of green, Vermont is a place where Adams returns in her head when congestion gets in her way.
“It's my true north,” she said.