Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs

I want to say at least a few words about Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs before the book begins to fade in my memory (which can happen all-too-distressingly fast I’m afraid). I really enjoyed this book, and Lurie is fast becoming a new favorite of mine. This is my second Lurie novel (the first one was The War Between the Tates), and I’ve found them both well-written, entertaining, smart reads.

Foreign Affairs has two main characters, Vinnie (Virginia) Miner and Fred Turner, both of whom are English professors at Corinth College and both of whom are traveling to London on leave to work on their research. They don’t know each other particularly well and don’t get to know one another much as the novel progresses, but their paths cross as they share some of the same friends, and eventually Vinnie finds herself helping Fred in ways she never would have expected. The novel charts the various friends they make and lovers they find and also their changing feelings about England itself. At times it is a magical place, full of culture and sophistication and history, and at other times it is dreary and lonely and cold.

The chief pleasure of this novel for me is Vinnie herself. She is in her 50s, single, and a bit eccentric — she steals things now and then and imagines her self-pity as a little dog Fido who follows her everywhere — but she knows this and accepts it, and Lurie never mocks her, instead presenting Vinnie as she might want to be presented, so we come to understand her thought processes, her explanations and justifications. She is lonely, but she does the best she can with brief affairs that are readily available, when she is interested. She is very aware of the way people stereotype her — as the stiff, unfriendly, set-in-her-ways, old maid professor. This bothers her, but she’s also aware she’s created a pretty nice life for herself, and she tries to appreciate what she has. There’s something very appealing about her — her observations about people are funny and insightful and her self-assessment brave and honest.

I mentioned in a previous post that Lurie refers to the novel itself occasionally; this never becomes too intrusive or overbearing, but it does introduce a certain self-reflexivity to the story (and I like this — why not recognize that what you’re writing is a novel and not pretend it’s real life?). At one point Vinnie considers what role people like her, women in their 50s, have in novels — which is to say, not much of one:

In most novels it is taken for granted that people over fifty are as set in their ways as elderly apple trees, and as permanently shaped and scarred by the years they have weathered. The literary convention is that nothing major can happen to them except through subtraction … Vinnie has accepted the convention; she has tried tor years to accustom herself to the idea that the rest of her life will be a mere epilogue to what was never, it has to be admitted, a very exciting novel.

But eventually Vinnie comes to change her mind about this acceptance:

Why, after all, should Vinnie become a minor character in her own life? Why shouldn’t she imagine herself as an explorer standing on the edge of some landscape as yet unmapped by literature: interested, even excited — ready to be surprised?

And this is a good description of what Lurie is doing — mapping a relatively untouched landscape for the pleasure of her readers (how untouched is this area? I haven’t thought much about how many main characters in novels are like Vinnie, although I know older novels are mainly about youth).

She also refers several times to Henry James, clearly a model and inspiration for Lurie’s own work; her writing is similarly concerned with Americans abroad, and with relationships and consciousness — what it’s like to be a thinking being in the world. At one point, Fred compares his experience to a James novel:

James again, Fred thinks: a Jamesian phrase, a Jamesian situation. But in the novels the scandals and secrets of high life are portrayed as more elegant; the people are better mannered. Maybe because it was a century earlier; or maybe only because the mannered elegance of James’ prose obfuscates the crude subtext. Maybe, in fact, it was just like now …

Isn’t this a fascinating question? Were manners better then, or did James merely make them seem more elegant? Have things changed, or haven’t they? As much as James might be an inspiration for Lurie, she has produced a different kind of novel, one that more readily acknowledges what was once subtext.

There is so much to enjoy here, that I could go on and on … I will certainly be reading more Lurie when I get the chance.

9 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

9 responses to “Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs

  1. How fascinating! I’m very interested in these intermingling between fiction and life inside novels themselves. Sometimes, this kind of approach may look rather highbrow and pretentious, but I like the way you present it. I’ve got this book on our shelves and definitely must get a look.

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  2. I adore Alison Lurie and reading your post brings the book back to me. A while ago now I read Anglo-Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson that was a beautifully written book about history professors of a certain age. There was a very interesting gender study in it of a late-middle aged lady professor who was quite clearly dismissed as eccentric and past it. I thought it a very fine and nuanced, if damning, portrayal.

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  3. Keep it up Dorothy and you’ll be getting me to read Lurie yet. I always see her books on the shelves at the bookstores and always pass them by. Not sure why other than they never seemed interesting. But you have gotten me another step closer to actually stopping and picking one up.

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  4. Very interesting – have you read Byatt’s Possessed? There seem to be a lot of parallels between it and Foreign Affairs.

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  5. Smithereens, I agree that self-referentiality can seem pretentious, but Lurie pulls it off wonderfully, with a light touch that has no pretense at all.

    Litlove, interesting book you describe; I shall have to take a look …

    Stefanie, it’s hard for me to tell if my personal obsessions would interest other people, but I suspect you would like Lurie.

    Phil — I HAVE read Possessed and liked it a lot; I wouldn’t mind re-reading it one of these days, actually. I like books about academics, for some reason.

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  6. hepzibah

    Thanks for the book review dorothy! This sounds very interesting and I will have to look into it…

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  7. Hepzibah — I found Lurie to be a smart but not-too-difficult or taxing read — just the right balance.

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  8. Finally a book that sounds good that is actually moochable! She sounds like a good author. I had heard of her, but never really thought of picking up her books until now.

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  9. I saw that you mooched this one — I hope you enjoy it!

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