Alison Lurie’s (born September 3, 1926) novels are known for their comedy and satire, and her acute observation is most often trained on the complications of love, marriage, and friendship as they affect the lives of the upper classes, the educated, the academic. Many of her novels take place at the fictional Convers College in New England or at Corinth University in upstate New York (based on Cornell University, where Lurie taught for many years) or concern characters who teach at or have been associated with Corinth. These novels are not, however, all academic satire; the academics often travel to other places or become involved in issues beyond the campus.
Lurie’s style is most often detached and ironic, a treatment that has won for her both blame and praise. Her novels, except for Only Children, explore the time in which they are written and reflect the events and culture of Lurie’s own adult years. The novels typically cover a short space of time, a crisis point in the lives of the characters, but several of the characters are seen at different points in their lives because of Lurie’s use of the same characters in different novels—sometimes as major, sometimes as minor characters. Lurie works successfully with a variety of narrative points of view: omniscient narration in The War Between the Tates, first-person narration in Real People, third-person focus narration in Imaginary Friends (expanded to include two focus characters in Foreign Affairs). She shows no penchant for either the happy or the unhappy ending, realistically leaving her characters to continue to work out their lives as best they can. In 2006, she returned to some of the themes for which she is best known in Truth and Consequences, a novel about academia and adultery set at her fictional Corinth University.
Love and Friendship
At the heart of Lurie’s first two novels are couples trying to work out their relationships. Her first novel, Love and Friendship (a title taken from Jane Austen), draws out the main lines of the issue. What is love and what is friendship? Are they different in what is best and most enduring? In this novel, the main character, Emmy Turner, “loves” her lover more than she does her husband. In the end, however, she chooses her husband over her lover because he needs her and to him she can be a friend. Indeed, what first led her to enter into a love affair was a frustration with her husband’s failure to make a friend of her, to discuss with her his work and his concerns. Ultimately, Lurie suggests, friendship is more satisfying and lasting than love; indeed, love at its best is friendship at its best.
The Nowhere City
In her second novel, The Nowhere City, the ending is the opposite, but the implication seems the same. Paul Cattleman rediscovers his wife at the end after much neglect and many adulteries. It is too late, however: Friendship is lost, and with it love; she tells him that she is not angry with him, but she just does not know him anymore.
Although the love and friendship theme becomes a secondary issue in Imaginary Friends, the novel Lurie published after The Nowhere City, she made it once again the central focus of Real People. In this novel, Janet Belle Spencer, a writer, has taken up residence at Illyria, a haven for writers and artists. She has gone there primarily to work, since she cannot seem to write at home. She is also drawn there by her love for an artist, Ken, with whom she believes she has much more in common than with her insurance-executive husband. The artists’ colony of Illyria is an unreal world, however, and Janet discovers that she and Ken are not really friends; she learns much about her writing that she resolves to change. It is at home with her husband, Clark, not at Illyria, she finally realizes, that she will be able to put to work her new understandings.
The War Between the Tates
Love and friendship in marriage are explored most intensively in Lurie’s next and most celebrated novel, The War Between the Tates. Erica and Brian Tate, a young academic couple, are in their own eyes and in the eyes of their friends the perfect couple, but as middle age looms, Brian becomes increasingly frustrated at not being famous, while the children become rebellious teenagers. True love and friendship appear to be lacking. Finally, Brian has an affair with a student whom he makes pregnant, Erica befriends the student, and both Brian and Erica, but especially Erica, wander through a bewildering maze of events that leave their earlier sense of themselves and their marriage damaged. As the novel ends, they drift back together, confused, “out of love,” but basically seeking a peace they can find only with each other.
Love and friendship in marriage is the topic once again of Only Children, but this time the actions of the adults are seen through the eyes of two little girls, Lolly and Mary Ann, who respond to what they see in the behavior of their elders, especially their parents. In each set of parents there is one serious, deeply dedicated person (Lolly’s mother, Mary Ann’s father) and one shallow, egotistic, flamboyant hunter of the other sex. The two sets of parents ultimately stay together, but, lacking a love based on friendship, they are merely maintaining a facade, and their example will cripple their children’s ability to love.
The love and friendship theme appears again in Foreign Affairs, which juxtaposes two main characters, one married and one not. Vinnie Miner, a middle-aged professor, finds love where she had least expected it, in a friendship with a man totally unlike her, a retired sanitary engineer. The other main character, a handsome young man in Vinnie’s academic department, begins the novel estranged from his wife, is temporarily dazzled and infatuated by a far more glamorous Englishwoman, but returns to his wife at the end, finding her superior in trust, honesty, and common decency.
The Truth About Lorin Jones
Love and friendship are very complicated and contradictory in The Truth About Lorin Jones, a novel that is a departure from her earlier novels for a number of reasons. Instead of an academic setting, the setting is the contemporary art world, and the primary relationship in the novel is one that essentially exists within the mind of Polly Alter, a failed painter who is researching the life of the late Lorin Jones, an artist whose life and loves seem to speak to Polly’s own situation. Lorin, who was once Lauren “Lolly” Zimmern, one of the little girls in Only Children, has lived a life of professional and personal frustration and is possibly still haunted by the demons of her childhood. The contemporary issues of feminism and lesbianism complicate the lives of both Polly and Lorin, but Lurie adds a new twist to the feminist argument by suggesting that it was Lorin who exploited the men in her life, using them as a means to serve her own ambitions. Polly’s discovery of the truth about Lorin permits her a new lease on life, as does her romance with Hugh Cameron, a onetime hippie poet who had been Lorin’s first husband.
The Last Resort
In Lurie’s tenth novel, The Last Resort, Jenny Walker, formerly a subservient wife to her distinguished academic husband, faces a crisis in her marriage when she increasingly comes under the sway of the charismatic lesbian Lee Weiss. Jenny’s attraction to Lee is heightened by the respect and attention Lee accords her, whereas her husband, Wilkie, is content to see her merely as a passive supporter of his plans. Wilkie himself, under the impression that he is terminally ill, begins to detach himself emotionally from his wife but has a brief flirtation with a young female admirer even as he prepares to commit suicide. Although the couple is reunited at the end of the novel, their relationship has changed. Jenny acquires greater self-confidence and feels she is now in charge of her own life. Wilkie’s “greatness” is no longer allowed to dominate their relationship as it once did.
The Academic Microcosm
Lurie’s novels concern themselves with relationships between people, and these relationships are at the center of all of her work. However, the lives of Lurie’s characters are affected by more than personal forces alone. Context, temporal and physical alike, is also central to these novels, and the direction of the lives of Lurie’s characters is profoundly affected by the times and the places in which they live. The most persistent context, moreover, is academic, since many of these characters, like Lurie herself, are university professors or members of their families. In this case again, Love and Friendship sets a pattern that other novels will follow.
The academic world is also a factor in The Nowhere City, although the story takes place in a Los Angeles setting that dominates the novel. Paul, in the end, will retreat to the eastern academic world that he knows (remaking his relationships with his old Harvard friends and taking a teaching post at Convers College), while Katherine, who had initially seemed the more eastern academic of the two, refuses to return there with him and seems to find a new self in Los Angeles.
The War Between the Tates again makes the academy not only a strong backdrop but also an actor in the events. Brian Tate is a highly successful sociology professor at Corinth University in upstate New York; his wife, Erica, is a faculty wife. Their two closest friends, who divorce in the novel, are Leonard Zimmern, an English professor, and Danielle Zimmern, Erica’s closest female friend, a part-time faculty member in the French department. The convulsions of American academe during the late 1960’s interfere directly in Brian’s and Erica’s lives. Brian, though very successful academically, has always dreamed of fame as an adviser to governments and presidents, and his middle-aged frustration makes him susceptible to trying to recover his lost youth by mixing socially with his graduate students, increasingly adapting his clothing and other styles to theirs, finally indulging in his affair with Wendy. Erica, like Katherine Cattleman in The Nowhere City, attempts to preserve her traditional moral values in the face of all this upheaval and tries not only to adapt herself to these values but also to give direction to Brian and Wendy, even to the point of insisting that Brian divorce her and marry Wendy. She becomes peripherally involved, through her friend Danielle, in the Hens, a local feminist group, and finding the local Hare Krishna guru of the students to be an old school friend, under his guidance has her own adventure with LSD. Brian and Erica, then, experience their marital troubles amid the student rebellions of the 1960’s. Though the novel does not probe as deeply as Imaginary Friends into the political and intellectual doubts and troubles of academe, these influences are present, shaping their reaction.
In Foreign Affairs, the two main characters are again college professors, both from the English department at Corinth University: the middle-aged, internationally famous expert in children’s literature, Vinnie Miner, and the young specialist in the eighteenth century, Fred Turner, both on leave to do scholarly work in London. The novel for the most part tells their stories separately, their paths crossing significantly only twice. Although their common background does make their lives cross in significant ways, and while both their lives are shaped by their academic backgrounds, the primary focus of the novel is on other aspects of their lives, which will be discussed below.
The American Macrocosm
The university campus, then, demonstrates the importance of time and place in Lurie’s novels. This is also true in a larger sense, since American culture itself, with its regional and sociological tensions, plays just as important a role as the characters do. If Love and Friendship, the first novel, works off a Jane Austen theme, it also echoes a peculiarly American, Fitzgeraldian theme in which the different regions and classes of America become important players in the conflicts of the novel. Emmy is New Jersey rich, her lover Will Thomas southern shabby genteel, and her husband Holman Chicago shabby but respectable poor. As the marital couple work out their conflicts with traditions of Convers College playing an important role, these different regional and class conflicts do much to shape their actions and reactions. In The Nowhere City, 1960’s America, with its new and strange customs and dress, almost overpowers its characters’ ability to work out their human problems. Here, Los Angeles is the city in which “nowhere” comes to mean “present but lacking history and future.” Strange and mixed new forms of architecture in both house and public building design, styles of hair and dress, sexual lifestyles, artistic forms, even subjects being studied in the universities are all strange, macabre, and new, dividing Katherine and Paul Cattleman as they respond to them so differently. Setting plays just as important a role in Imaginary Friends, which brings two very traditional strongholds, the enclosed small town and the principles of academic inquiry, together with the strains of the world without.
Real People, again, though it removes its main characters to an isolated, protected, ideal world of the artists’ colony, nevertheless shows that the best work cannot be done in an artificial atmosphere but only when the artists are living and writing truthfully about the world in which they are “real people.” Again, too, despite all the 1960’s campus shenanigans of The War Between the Tates (drugs, strange new lifestyles, clothes, and hairstyles) the novel presents a strong sense that the campus is only reflecting all the major movements, confusions, and displacements of the society at large. In Only Children, which is set during the Great Depression, the characters reflect the concerns of that time, including its powerful economic and political conflicts. Bill Hubbard, for example, is an example of the President Franklin D. Roosevelt-type liberal democrat, dedicated to social reforms that will lift the poor, while Dan Zimmern represents the nascent Madison Avenue type, flamboyant and driven to succeed. Foreign Affairs, in the experiences of both Vinnie Miner and Fred Turner, discloses the tensions of many cultural mores, especially different class and sexual expectations, complicated further by differences between Great Britain and the United States.
In her ninth and tenth novels, Lurie abandons both the international theme and an academic setting, returning to the world of art and the artist that was her subject in Real People.
The Truth About Lorin Jones and The Last Resort introduce another setting into Lurie’s work, namely Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States and the site of Lurie’s second home. Lurie uses the remoteness and luxury of Key West to place her characters in a distinct setting where they can work out their problems before returning, altered and refreshed, to the “real” world. In this way, Key West operates much like the island in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611). Lurie also sketches cultural and political differences on the island, delineating the way Key West’s sizable homosexual community comes under attack from wealthy, right-wing Republicans who also reside in the area. Issues such as aging and AIDS also are given extended, if sometimes lighthearted, examination.
The lives of the individual characters are additionally set against the backdrop of the world of literature itself. In Real People, Janet Belle Spencer images Ken as the ideal reader of her fiction, largely because he recognizes every literary reference—which in turn is reminiscent of Lurie’s own rich texture of literary reference. In this regard, as already observed, she uses the “love and friendship” theme from Jane Austen. Another novelist to whom Lurie is greatly indebted is Henry James, especially in Imaginary Friends and Foreign Affairs. Indeed, Imaginary Friends in many ways duplicates the plot of James’s The Bostonians (1885-1886), in which a young woman named Verena leads a band of truth-seekers by an extraordinary gift of public speaking, which seems to proceed from a trancelike ability to contact higher powers.
Foreign Affairs enlarges on the Jamesian theme not only by explicitly introducing James’s work by name but also by exploring one of his most insistent themes: what happens when basically good, decent Americans encounter a far more culturally sophisticated European society. In James’s novels of this type, the balance is struck in favor finally of the basic, honest decency of Americans against the more sophisticated but possibly corrupt world of the Europeans, and Lurie’s novel arrives at the same resolution. This exploration is complicated by the fact that, of the two Americans, Vinnie Miner is very sophisticated in the ways of the English, knowing their ways and customs so well that she really feels more culturally at home there than in the United States. Fred Turner, on the other hand, despite his great physical charms and handsomeness and his knowledge of eighteenth century literature, is basically a raw recruit to European culture. Both, however, have “foreign affairs”: Vinnie, with an almost illiterate Oklahoman whom she meets on the plane on the way over, so embarrasingly crude that she dreads presenting him to her friends; Fred, with an English aristocrat and actor so elegant and sophisticated that his American life appears crude by comparison. Despite this structural converse, in which Vinnie loves an American far less presentable than her European friends, and in which Fred loves an Englishwoman far more sophisticated than his American wife and friends, both find, despite all of their differences, their American loves superior after all, and their European friends, for all of their sophistication, less satisfying morally as friends and lovers than their American friends. Thus, the pattern of James’s international novels, in which superior American decency confronts and ultimately wins out over superior European elegance and sophistication, is repeated here in Lurie’s fiction.
The influence of James can also be discerned in The Truth About Lorin Jones, which, like Imaginary Friends, recalls James’s The Bostonians. In this case, the competition between male and female for the loyalty of a talented woman is enlarged into an exploration of the politics of lesbian feminist separatism, something only hinted at in the James novel.
If Lurie’s readers often spot resonances from other fiction, they also have the pleasure of recognizing characters they have met in other Lurie novels, for Lurie frequently works with recurring characters. Emmy Turner’s four-year-old boy Freddy from Love and Friendship is one of the grown-up main characters in Foreign Affairs, while Fred’s wife Roo in that same novel appeared as a child in the earlier The War Between the Tates. Sometimes Lurie will, in a later novel, go back to an earlier period in a character’s life: Miranda, the grown-up, married mother of three children in Love and Friendship, is seen as a child in the later novel Only Children.
Of all the characters that recur, the most persistent one is Leonard Zimmern, first seen in Real People as a middle-aged, distinguished critic of American literature living in New York; later, in The War Between the Tates, as a friend of Brian and Erica. He is also the father of Roo, a child here but an adult in Foreign Affairs. In Only Children, the Great Depression-era story, Zimmern is a teenager, and in Foreign Affairs he is the father of a grown-up Roo, the famous critic whose harsh article on Vinnie Miner’s work in children’s literature haunts Vinnie as she goes to England. Roger Zimmern of Imaginary Friends is mentioned briefly in The War Between the Tates as Leonard Zimmern’s cousin. L. D. Zimmern also surfaces in The Truth About Lorin Jones as the legal owner of his half sister Lorin’s unsold paintings. In addition, The Truth About Lorin Jones features the return of Lorin’s father, Dan Zimmern of Only Children, and Danielle Zimmern, divorced wife of Leonard and Erica’s best friend in The War Between the Tates. In her next novel, The Last Resort, L. D. Zimmern returns as the cousin of Lee Weiss, the lesbian who befriends Jenny Walker. Another continuity in The Last Resort is the return of the character of Barbara Mumpson, who first appeared in Foreign Affairs. This remarkable amount of recurrence suggests Lurie’s strong interest in understanding how her characters came to be who they are, despite her novels’ time frames. Her novels, as noted before, cover only short periods of time—one, Only Children, takes place in a single weekend. In order to continue her characters’ development, then, Lurie often spreads out their lives over several novels, the recurrence of her characters in different novels doing much to tie their lives together.
As in the other novels, all the themes discussed so far are treated as well in Imaginary Friends. Their treatment in this novel, however, represents perhaps Lurie’s broadest and deepest effort, for the academic backdrop she uses so often elsewhere is broadened here to embrace the most fundamental of human questions, questions of knowledge, of identity, of sanity, and finally of madness. The main character in this novel, sociologist Roger Zimmern—a young, brand-new Ph.D. at a large, upstate New York university—goes to Sophis, a nearby small town, as the research assistant of Thomas McMann, a famous senior professor in his department whom Roger admires despite rumors he has heard about him from other young faculty members and despite the realization that McMann’s form of empirical sociology (the case-study method) is passé. To investigate McMann’s hypothesis that small groups can build a belief system so powerful that it can withstand, rationalize, and incorporate doubting attacks from within and without, Roger infiltrates, under the cover of a public opinion seeker, a group of religious fundamentalists called the Truth-seekers, whose young leader, Verena, leads and directs through automatic writing from superior beings on another planet, named Varna. McMann is introduced as a businessman friend, also interested in their theories.
Roger’s secure identity is overset by his mentor’s unscientific attempt to control the experiment in the direction of his hypothesis rather than merely to observe and record. Also tormented by his sexual attraction for Verena, he reaches a point where he no longer knows what he believes in, no longer knows who he is, no longer knows whether there is in his discipline any objective basis for scientific inquiry. He believes that he is going mad but decides that it is, rather, his mentor who is insane, and he unwillingly becomes the primary witness whose testimony results in McMann’s being committed to an asylum. The novel ends with Roger maintaining a tenuous but commonsensical hold on his own sanity. Here, Lurie has touched upon questions central not only to academic life but to the lives of everyone else as well: How can one truly observe and know? How real is our own sense of self?
Taken as a whole, Lurie’s novels reveal a remarkable uniformity. Her own background in academe provides the most common setting for her novels, and frequently this setting is broadened to reflect the central questions with which Lurie is concerned. Her interest in clothing and identity, in the lives of children, indeed in the lives of all of her characters, is unusual. Her work is best considered not as a series of separate novels but as a continuity in which her characters’ lives continue, not ceasing with the end of a particular novel but continuing as do most human lives— growing and changing through time.
Long fiction: Love and Friendship, 1962; The Nowhere City, 1965; Imaginary Friends, 1967; Real People, 1969; The War Between the Tates, 1974; Only Children, 1979; Foreign Affairs, 1984; The Truth About Lorin Jones, 1988; The Last Resort, 1998; Truth and Consequences, 2005.
Short fiction: Women and Ghosts, 1994. nonfiction: The Language of Clothes, 1981; Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children’s Literature, 1990; Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson, 2001; Boys and Girls Forever: Children’s Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter, 2003.
Children’s literature: The Heavenly Zoo: Legends and Tales of the Stars, 1979; Clever Gretchen, and Other Foreign Folktales, 1980; Fabulous Beasts, 1981; The Black Geese: A Baba Yaga Story from Russia, 1999 (with Jessica Souhami).
Edited texts: The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales, 1993.
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.
Categories: Literary Theory