I went through an Alison Lurie phase back in the 90’s, but I hadn’t read Foreign Affairs, published in 1984. What a good time I had with this clever, sharp-eyed comedy about two American academics on study leave in England.
Here’s a taste of the reason why:
As has sometimes been remarked, almost any woman can find a man to sleep with if she sets her standards low enough. But what must be lowered are not necessarily standards of character, intelligence, sexual energy, good looks and worldly achievement. Rather, far more often, she must relax her requirement s for commitment, constancy, and romantic passion; she must cease to hope for declarations of love, admiring stares, witty telegrams, eloquent letters, birthday cards, valentines, candy and flowers. No; plain women often have a sex life. What they lack, rather, is a love life. (12)
You can see why Lurie has been compared to Jane Austen, but with a very modern twist:
Sometimes Vinnie wonders why any woman ever gets into bed with any man. To take off all your clothes and lie down beside some unclothed larger person is a terribly risky business. The odds are stacked almost as heavily against you as in the New York state lottery. He could hurt you; he could laugh at you; he could take one look at your naked ageing body and turn away in ill-concealed, embarrassed distaste. He could turn out to be awkward, selfish, inept – even totally incompetent. He could have some peculiar sexual hangup: a fixation on your underclothes to the exclusion of you, for instance, or on one sexual variation to the exclusion of all else. The risks are so high that really no woman in her right mind would take such a chance – except that when you do take such a chance you’re usually not in your right mind. (205)
Vinnie Miner, fifty-four years old, small, plain and unmarried, is an expert on children’s literature, and has a grant to write a book on children’s playground rhymes. An Anglophile academic who feels that temperamentally and intellectually she is essentially English, she falls into an unlikely affair with Chuck Mumpson, a Texan waste disposal engineer on a package holiday, who is given to wearing fringed leather jackets, a leather string tie and a horrible plastic raincoat of the most repellent American sort.
The other affair is that of Vinnie’s young colleague, the outrageously handsome Fred Turner, who looks like the hero of a Gothic novel. Fred, unhappily separated from his wife Roo, is miserable in London until he falls in love with Rosemary, an actress who reminds him of a Henry James heroine – beautiful, fine, delicate, fatally impulsive – and is drawn into her world.
It’s a clever, light-hearted reworking of the Henry James theme of the American in Europe, the American in the form of the comical Chuck, whom the upper-class English patronise as “such a character”, and the serious Fred, who is well out of his depth with complicated, devious Rosemary and her high-society friends. In between is Vinnie, an acute observer, who remains American even if she would prefer not to be.
I loved the wit and penetration of Lurie’s observations of English society and the reactions of Americans to England and the English, as well as the snobberies and turf wars of the academic world. Vinnie, acutely aware that her field of children’s literature is looked down on by many in her own department, is horrified to find a scornful and disparaging reference to her life’s work in the Atlantic: Do we really need a scholarly study of playground doggerel? inquired the writer, one L.D. Zimmern, a Professor of English at Columbia (6) Vinnie can’t bear to think that her colleagues will read this, and she spends a lot of time imagining different kinds of humiliation and even death for Professor Zimmern. In a very satisfying plot twist at the end of the book she has to decide how far she’ll let her resentment of Zimmern infect her as a human being. And it’s Chuck Mumpson, at first seen by Vinnie as a kind of caricature, who comes out of the whole thing with stature and dignity.
Lurie, Faye Weldon and Carol Shields are roughly the same vintage, with Muriel Spark about ten years older. I’ve been trying to think of more recent women writers (or a man, but it’s never been there in the same way) with this kind of elegant, witty but serious social observation. Any suggestions?