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Alice Sadie Celine by Sarah Blakley-Cartwright
Literary fiction

Alice Sadie Celine

by Sarah Blakley-Cartwright

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Quick take

Posing urgent questions about female friendships and romance, the story of a transgressive affair in ’90s-era Berkeley.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_MultipleNarrators

    Multiple viewpoints

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_LGBTQ

    LGBTQ+ themes

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_FemaleFriendship

    Female friendships

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_SalaciousPeach

    Salacious

Synopsis

It’s opening night, but Alice’s performance in the local Bay Area production of The Winter’s Tale is far from glamorous. She doesn’t have dreams of stardom, but the basement theater in a wildfire-choked town isn’t exactly what she envisioned for her career back home in Los Angeles. To make matters worse, her best friend Sadie is not even coming.

Pragmatic, serious Sadie and flighty, creative Alice have been best friends since high school—really one another’s only friends—but now that they are through with college (which they attended together) and living on opposite ends of California, Alice would at least expect her friend’s support. Sadie, determined not to cancel her plans with her boyfriend, ends up enlisting the help of her mother, Celine.

A professor of women’s and gender studies at UC Berkeley, Celine’s landmark treatise on sex and identity made her notorious, but she’s struggling to write her new book in a post-second-wave feminist world. So, when Sadie begs her to attend Alice’s play, she relents, if only to escape writer’s block. But in a turn of perplexing events, Celine becomes entranced by Alice’s performance and realizes that her daughter’s once lanky, slightly annoying best friend is now an irresistible young woman.

Set over the course of decades—from Alice and Sadie’s early friendship days and Celine’s decision to leave her husband to the radical movements of 1990s Berkeley and navigating contemporary Hollywood—Alice and Celine’s affair will test the limits of their love for Sadie and their own beliefs of power, agency, and feminism.

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Get an early look from the first pages of Alice Sadie Celine.
Alice Sadie Celine

Chapter One

ALICE

FRIDAY

Opening night and, as soon as they could get Leontes’s detachable sleeves Velcroed on—the adhesive tape was moist and mucky in the record June heat, not sticking to the tunic—the show would begin. The sun had risen each day that week angry and blinking, baking the asphalt. Alice, sweltering, was tucked away backstage, hidden in the narrow wings.

Sadie had once observed that Alice’s favorite part of acting was disappearing. Alice couldn’t deny this was true. This may have been why she loved coming in with clean hair and knowing someone else would take care of the rest. She would be provided the exact words to speak, down to the punctuation, and directed where to stand. Told which shoes to wear to become queen of Sicily. Alice liked to place herself in others’ hands. She liked how easy it was to slip into another life.

And slip into another life she had. A year and a half ago, ditching the Bay Area—and her family, and her best friend—for Hollywood, to pursue stardust dreams she was scarcely sure she had.

It had all started in second grade, when Alice had auditioned for the school play, Under the Sea, and landed a role! She’d played a cold-water sea urchin who lived in the Shallows, the underworld of King Neptune’s marvelous kingdom. It was considered an undesirable bit part. Alice couldn’t sit down or pee. All the classmates, mermaids and starfish, shunned the monstrous urchin. Alice had one line she did not understand, about being turned into uni. Still, having been cast, in a role, to her, life could not be improved upon.

Now, in L.A., things were more complicated. Staring down the nothing, the zero, the black hole, the unmanifest, the 100-percent-pure potential, the no-thing. Submitting headshots online, not even landing auditions.

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Why I love it

Books that expose the messy, dark underbelly of human behavior fascinate me. So I find reading about forbidden relationships intoxicating, as they drive you crazy but keep you coming back for more. Alice Sadie Celine, an intricate examination of the human condition, love, and friendship, perfectly evokes this feeling.

When the story opens, we meet Alice: a working actress at the opening night of her play, which her best friend, Sadie, is unable to attend. Type-A and always devoted, Sadie sends her mother, Celine, a provocative and revered women’s and gender studies professor, in her stead. After the show, Celine becomes intrigued by this grown-up version of Alice, and the two women enter into an affair. In a series of alternating timelines and POVs, we get a window into Alice, Sadie, and Celine’s inner lives and how this affair affects their relationships with each other. Throughout the story, Sarah Blakley-Cartwright pushes and pulls at the delicate strings that tie these three women together, forcing them to uncover parts of themselves they’ve kept intentionally hidden.

This novel treats an unthinkably complicated situation with nuance, grace, and no short amount of wit. Through the fully realized characters of Alice, Sadie, and Celine, the book explores the critical themes of motherhood and female friendship. I loved this poignant and beautifully complex story, and I encourage you to pick it up and do the same.

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