Lurie, Alison (Vol. 175)
Alison Lurie 1926-
American novelist, editor, children's writer, memoirist, short story writer, essayist, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Lurie's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 5, 18, and 39.
Distinguished for her sophisticated comedies of manners and academic satires, Lurie has earned both popular and critical acclaim for her best-selling novels, such as The War between the Tates (1974), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Foreign Affairs (1984), The Truth about Lorin Jones (1988), and The Last Resort (1998). Set in closed communities, typically prestigious eastern colleges and artist enclaves, Lurie's novels repeatedly utilize the themes of adultery and sexuality as means for allowing her characters, especially her female characters, to confront their self-depictions and grow into a greater awareness of themselves and others. Her prose attempts to deconstruct the pretensions and false pride of her characters—at times unmercifully—and works to expose the ways in which cultural ideas and institutions can become obstacles to rewarding lives. Lurie is also a noted scholar of children's literature and has written and edited several volumes of juvenilia, criticism, and fairy tales including Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children's Literature (1990) and Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter (2002).
Born in Chicago and raised in New York City and Westchester County, New York, Lurie is the eldest of two daughters born to Harry and Bernice Lurie. Lurie's father, a sociology professor, was born in Latvia and later became the executive director of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds. Lurie's mother was an accomplished journalist with the Detroit Free Press before her marriage, a career she left to devote herself to her family. Lurie attended a private elementary school and finished high school at a progressive preparatory school in Connecticut. She attended Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, graduating in 1947 with a bachelor of arts in literature and history. Lurie began writing in elementary school and continued composing poems, stories, and reviews throughout her schooling. After leaving Radcliffe, she took an editorial assistant position at Oxford University Press in New York. In 1948 she married Jonathan Peale Bishop, with whom she had three sons. While her husband pursued his doctoral work at Harvard University, Lurie concentrated on her writing career and raising her family. During these years, Lurie became a founding member of the Poets' Theater at Harvard. The group, established in 1950, set out to revive poetic drama and included such notable writers and artists as James Merrill, Donald Hall, Frank O'Hara, Richard Wilbur, Kenneth Koch, and Edward Gorey, among others. After receiving rejection slips for numerous short stories and two novels, Lurie stopped writing for a period but resumed her work in earnest to write a memoir of her friend, V. R. Lang—the poet, playwright, and actress—who died of cancer in 1956. Friends of Lurie privately printed the work, V. R. Lang: A Memoir (1959), which was later included as the introduction to V. R. Lang: Poems and Plays (1975). Lurie's first novel, Love and Friendship, was published in 1962. A series of fellowships from the Yaddo Foundation in 1963, 1964, and 1966 helped support her work on her subsequent novels, The Nowhere City (1965) and Imaginary Friends (1967). Lurie's experiences at the well-known Saratoga Springs retreat for writers, artists, and composers provided the inspiration for her fourth novel Real People (1969). In 1968 she began teaching part-time in the English Department at Cornell University, becoming an adjunct associate professor in 1973 and a professor of English in 1979. During the late 1970s, Lurie focused on her academic work in the area of folklore and children's literature, leading to the publication of several children's works, including The Heavenly Zoo: Legends and Tales of the Stars (1979), Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folk Tales (1980), and Fabulous Beasts (1981). Lurie's seventh novel, Foreign Affairs, won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1985 and was nominated for the American Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In addition to these honors, Lurie received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1978 and the Prix Femina Etranger in 1989. Lurie separated from Bishop in 1975 and later married novelist Edward Hower. In 1989 she was named as the Fredric J. Whiton Professor of American Literature at Cornell.
With her first novel, Love and Friendship, Lurie established a satiric style and academic milieu that she would return to repeatedly in subsequent novels. Love and Friendship—its title a reference to an early novel written by nineteenth-century author Jane Austen—relates the story of a disintegrating marriage between a woman and her husband, an English professor at a small, prestigious eastern college. Reminiscent of Austen's novels, Lurie adopts a comedy of manners style to explore such issues as relations between the sexes, female awakening, and the intellectual and personal pretenses in cloistered academic communities. Imaginary Friends examines how fantasy and reality can become blurred, especially when sexuality is involved, and how academic objectivity can be used to foster self-delusion. The novel exposes the arrogance of social science research methods and, in particular, the simplistic beliefs about human relationships that underlie such sociological empiricism. Real People, based on Lurie's experiences at Saratoga Springs, employs the form of a journal to investigate the relationship between an artist and the world around her. The plot follows a writer named Janet Belle Smith during her week-long stay at Illyria, a decadent artists' retreat. Lurie returned to her familiar fictional elements—academic settings, adultery, and marital breakdown—in The War between the Tates, which dissects the lives, relationships, presumptions, and self-deceptions of a married couple. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the novel also contains an explicit political component, embodied in the character of Brian Tate, a professor of political science who is having an affair with a social psychology graduate student. Brian accidentally impregnates the student, causing his wife, Erica, to rebel and briefly experiment with sex, drugs, and Eastern philosophy.
Lurie departed from her trademark academic settings in Only Children (1979), a novel set during the Great Depression and told from the viewpoint of two eight-year-old girls. The novel incorporates Lurie's interest in children's literature and gender discrimination while continuing several of the themes from The War between the Tates, most notably male-female and intergenerational conflicts. Through this child's-eye perspective, Lurie reveals the immaturity of adult behavior and the limitations imposed on adult women. Lurie returned to scholarly protagonists in Foreign Affairs, which revolves around the troubled lives of two academics—a middle-aged female scholar of children's literature and a male junior professor of eighteenth-century literature—who are both on research sabbaticals in London. A comedy of manners that is also reminiscent of the Jamesian-style “international novel,” Foreign Affairs examines the self-deceptions that inhibit the academics' respective relationships and the false assumptions about foreign culture that become part of their illusions. In The Truth about Lorin Jones, Lurie again explores the uncertain boundaries between reality and fantasy, this time through the experiences of a biographer, Laurie Zimmern, who is writing a book about a famous painter named Lorin Jones. While conducting research, Zimmern continually encounters her own faulty preconceptions about Jones, the people in Jones's life, and herself. This new sense of awareness forces her to reexamine the attitudes and ideals that have been shaping her life. Set in Key West, The Last Resort involves an eminent naturalist, Wilkie Walker, and his wife, Jenny, as they travel to Florida with vastly different agendas. Jenny hopes the vacation will restore her husband's warmth, while Wilkie—convinced that he has cancer—has come to kill himself in the ocean. The novel takes a darkly comic turn as Wilkie haphazardly bungles his suicide attempts while Jenny explores a lesbian love affair and becomes friends with some of the island's more colorful denizens. Women and Ghosts (1994), Lurie's only collection of short fiction, features nine stories that follow women haunted by figments of their own psyches. In “Ilse's House,” a woman encounters the ghost of her fiancé's ex-wife, while “In the Shadow” focuses on a young foreign service officer whose love life is interrupted by the spirit of a former lover. “The Double Poet” centers around a writer who is tormented by a mysterious doppelgänger who begins taking her place at literary events.
In addition to her fiction, Lurie has published several analytical works, including The Language of Clothes (1981), a study of clothing as a mode of social communication, and Don't Tell the Grown-Ups, a volume of critical writings on children's literature in which she examines subversive elements of traditional stories such as Little Women, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Watership Down, and Harriet the Spy. She continued her scholarly reexamination of juvenile fiction with Boys and Girls Forever, which discusses the inspiration behind and the portrayal of gender roles in many notable children's works. Lurie has also edited The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales (1993), a collection of folklore and children's stories spanning from 1839 to 1989. In 2001 Lurie published Familiar Spirits, an affectionate though not uncritical memoir of her friends James Merrill, the acclaimed American poet who died of AIDS in 1995, and his long-time partner, David Jackson.
Frequently compared to Jane Austen by critics, Lurie has attracted considerable praise for her incisive, satirical observations of social conventions and relationships among the educated classes. Many reviewers have concurred that The War between the Tates and Foreign Affairs represent the strongest examples of Lurie's talent in constructing modern comedies of manners. Academics have frequently lauded Lurie's insights into contemporary culture, mores, and politics, while additionally commending her eye for detail, sharp wit, and sense of irony. Several critics, however, have found Lurie's often amused detachment unduly cold and harsh, with some claiming that her satire at its most extreme tends to project an indifferent and contemptuous attitude toward her characters. Others have argued that Lurie's prose style is overly controlled, noting that her authorial dominance over characters and plot can make suspension of disbelief difficult. Moreover, some reviewers have perceived an over-reliance on infidelity and sexual intrigue as melodramatic plot devices in her work. While popular press critics have been favorably disposed towards Lurie's fiction, considering her to be a brilliant satirist and keen observer of human nature, many scholars have asserted that Lurie's importance as a serious writer has been diminished by her mainstream status as an entertaining author of light, comic novels. Despite such reservations, Lurie has been consistently praised for her intelligent plots and skillful pacing of both comedy and suspense in her fiction. Lurie has also earned critical esteem for her scholarly and editorial contributions to the study of children's literature, though some have questioned her inclusion criteria for The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales. In the Publishers Weekly review of Boys and Girls Forever, the critic has commented that Lurie's “essays are consistently entertaining, enlightening and erudite, and Lurie's insights into a host of classic titles … bring clarity to an always-evolving form.”
V. R. Lang: A Memoir (memoir) 1959; reprinted in V. R. Lang: Poems and Plays. With a Memoir by Alison Lurie, 1975
Love and Friendship (novel) 1962
The Nowhere City (novel) 1965
Imaginary Friends (novel) 1967
Real People (novel) 1969
The War between the Tates (novel) 1974
The Heavenly Zoo: Legends and Tales of the Stars [illustrations by Monika Beisner] (juvenilia) 1979
Only Children (novel) 1979
Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folk Tales [illustrations by Margot Tomes] (juvenilia) 1980
Fabulous Beasts [illustrations by Monika Beisner] (juvenilia) 1981
The Language of Clothes [illustrations by Doris Palca] (criticism) 1981
Foreign Affairs (novel) 1984
The Truth about Lorin Jones (novel) 1988
Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children's Literature (essays and criticism) 1990
The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales [editor] (fairy tales) 1993
Women and Ghosts (short stories) 1994
The Last Resort (novel) 1998
Black Geese: A Baba Yaga Story from Russia [illustrations by Jessica Souhani] (juvenilia) 1999
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SOURCE: Maitland, Sara. “Polly's Choice.” New Statesman and Society 84, no. 1331 (8 July 1988): 39-40.
[In the following review, Maitland compares Lurie's fiction to the work of Jane Austen but faults The Truth about Lorin Jones, asserting that the book has a weak ending.]
Alison Lurie is a truly clever writer: sharp eyed and eared for the details of life about her, astringent, witty, and with a stylish control which allows her to use wit rather than be used by it. One very seldom feels that she sacrifices either truth or plot for the cheap joke and this is rare. I would not like to meet her, though; I would feel, as I would with Jane Austen (though Austen is ultimately more tolerant, affectionate, towards her own creations than Lurie) that my every mannerism and movement might well end up as grist for her mill.
The comparison with Austen is not frivolous—both of them take the social comedy, the novel of manners and use it for highly ethical ends, for exposing the triviality and dishonesty in many of our accepted codes and customs; they take the known characters of their daily lives and make the reader see them aslant, differently, better. But The Truth about Lorin Jones is not her best book, though all these hallmarks are present in abundance.
Poor Polly Alter is a New York art historian, nearly 40 and divorced, who doesn't trust men, is trying to...
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SOURCE: MacCurtain, Austin. “What We Are and May Be.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4449 (8-14 July 1988): 259.
[In the following review, MacCurtain discusses the plot and characters in The Truth about Lorin Jones, calling the novel “entertaining.”]
The epigraph to The Truth about Lorin Jones serves notice that the reader had best be cautious about Alison Lurie's intentions. It is a riddling quotation from a speech of the distracted Ophelia: “They say the owl was a baker's daughter. Lord! We know what we are, but we know not what we may be.” We might remember, too, that the character who described Ophelia's condition said that her hearers “botch the words up fit to their own thoughts”.
Polly Alter, a recently divorced single mother who works at an art museum, has been given a grant to write the life of an American painter, Lorin Jones, who died practically unknown in 1969 and whose work, thanks to an exhibition mounted by Polly, is now becoming famous. Lorin, a shy, solitary person, is seen by Polly as a victim of the men in her life, exploited as a woman, then neglected as an artist. Polly, since her divorce a doctrinaire feminist who has as little as possible to do with men, must now interview these destroyers of Lorin: her dealer, her half-brother, her ex-husband and the unsuccessful poet with whom she ran away.
Readers of Alison...
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SOURCE: King, Francis. “Painters and Self-Portraits.” Spectator 261, no. 8349 (16 July 1988): 31-2.
[In the following review, King analyzes the plot and style of The Truth about Lorin Jones, claiming the book makes interesting points about the nature of biography.]
Every biographer—Michael Holroyd with Strachey and John, Victoria Glendinning with Victoria Sackville-West and Rebecca West, even (dare one say it?) Ariana Stassinopoulos Huffington with Callas and Picasso—is bound, willy-nilly, to fall victim to some degree of self-identification, however unconscious, with his or her subject. It is this self-identification, carried to remarkable extremes, which provides the theme for Alison Lurie's The Truth about Lorin Jones. Lurie's is a straight novel; but it is also, in a sense, a detective story, since every biographer must play the detective—coaxing out unflattering and even disreputable truths from the survivors; on the look-out for minor but crucial indications of what I call ‘creative memory’ or even of downright lying; and at the same time wary of becoming so much involved in emotional and moral issues that the objective truth gets lost.
The name of Lurie's chief character, Polly Alter, at once in itself proclaims a remarkable degree of identification between biographer and her subject. When a child, Lorin (formerly Laura) was known as ‘Lolly’....
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SOURCE: Thwaite, Anthony. “Ruined by Men.” London Review of Books 10, no. 15 (1 September 1988): 24-6.
[In the following excerpt, Thwaite praises Lurie's astute commentary in The Truth about Lorin Jones on the craft of writing a biography.]
Alison Lurie's new novel is, among other things, an anthology of several characters from her earlier novels. Readers unfamiliar with these books need not be apprehensive, however: The Truth about Lorin Jones is perfectly self-contained. Indeed, that self-contained quality helps to account for the powerful, painful oppressiveness of the book, as Polly Alter becomes more and more deeply enmeshed in her quest for the eponymous woman she is pursuing.
For Polly is engaged in writing a biography of Lorin Jones, a painter who died some twenty years before the quest begins. Polly has recently become divorced, has a teenage son whom she adores, and earns her living in a New York museum. At the time the book opens, she has secured a commission to write her life of Lorin Jones and has been given leave of absence to do so. From the beginning, there are parallels, it appears, between Lorin and Polly, making Polly all the more eager to write a book which will be sympathetic, properly feminist, and true. Lorin (1926-1969) died before the advent of true feminism, but it seems that she suffered at the hands of men. It becomes Polly's job to seek out...
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SOURCE: Bannon, Barbara A. “Truth Telling.” Commonweal 115, no. 122 (6 December 1988): 690.
[In the following review, Bannon contends that The Truth about Lorin Jones is humorous, sly, and satirical but asserts that it does not match her best work.]
One thing is certain about Alison Lurie's novels. They always entertain. Although The Truth about Lorin Jones is not up to the high standards set by Lurie herself in The War between the Tates and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Foreign Affairs, it is quirky, zesty, and funny enough to give enjoyment and amusement to its readers, most of whom will undoubtedly be women.
It is also both sly and sardonic in its satirization of lesbianism. A very polite form is shown here—no graphic physical details are given, only a kind of cozy cuddling, but the intense intolerance some lesbians feel for heterosexuals is made very clear. While this may antagonize some readers, it will ring true to others.
When first we meet Polly Alter she is thirty-nine, divorced, raising a teen-aged son she adores, but who is now off staying with his father. She “used to like men, but she didn't trust them any more or have very much to do with them.” Just what has turned her off them, apart from her contempt for her quickly remarried ex-husband, she doesn't quite know, but is trying to figure out herself.
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SOURCE: Stark, John. “Alison Lurie's Career.” Hollins Critic 26, no. 1 (February 1989): 1-7.
[In the following essay, Stark provides an overview of Lurie's novels from Love and Friendship to The Truth about Lorin Jones, drawing attention to continuities and consistencies in the themes, settings, and characters of her fiction.]
American fiction would be far richer but for the truncated careers of many of its creators. Early spectacular success exacerbated a few writers' psychological problems. Others sustained development only briefly and either stopped producing or repeatedly wrote essentially the same work. Still others, more adventurous, did experiment but did so by writing types of fiction that were virtually certain to be trivial or that were uncongenial to their talents. Because of this unfortunate high incidence of stunted growth, one contemplates with pleasure the careers of those writers who have developed and who have created a substantial body of important fictional works. One such writer is Alison Lurie, who published her first novel in 1962, who published a fine novel in 1988 and who is likely to continue publishing first-rate novels.
Lurie has formed a career, rather than a mere series of books, partly because she seems to have tried to accomplish precisely that. One example of the shrewd, career-enhancing choices she has made is that of creating...
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SOURCE: Toth, Emily. “Questioning the Quest.” Women's Review of Books 6, no. 1 (February 1989): 11.
[In the following excerpt, Toth discusses the plot of The Truth about Lorin Jones, noting the struggles of protagonist Polly Alter to write a biography of Lorin Jones—struggles similar to Toth's own in writing her biography of Kate Chopin.]
No feminist biographer ever starts out from disinterested, “scholarly” motives (if such motives even exist—which I doubt). Usually, we start out wanting to reclaim a sister. We want our subject to be our foremother and our friend, and occasionally even our reader-adviser. Certainly we want a mentor, or at least a cautionary tale.
But sometimes we find out that our subject did dumb things, or mean things. She may simply refuse to fit our definition of what a feminist ought to have done (my current subject, Kate Chopin, for instance, hankered after other women's husbands). And frequently our subject's living relatives can be even more politically incorrect. (After my biography of Grace Metalious appeared, her daughter gave an interview calling my feminist slant a “gimmick,” and bashing her mother's memory.)
So what's a feminist biographer to do?
Alison Lurie, in The Truth about Lorin Jones, presents the problems in clever fictional form; Carolyn Heilbrun, in Writing a Woman's Life,...
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SOURCE: Flower, Dean. “Barbaric Yawps and Breathing Lessons.” Hudson Review 42, no. 1 (spring 1989): 133-40.
[In the following excerpt, Flower notes the difficulties inherent in capturing a life in biography and discusses Lurie's treatment of this theme in The Truth about Lorin Jones.]
Alison Lurie listens to another kind of barbaric yawp altogether, the language of predatory academics, enlightened feminists, complacent male chauvinists, suave psychotherapists, smug art critics, and affluent New York dealers. Her latest novel [The Truth about Lorin Jones] might be understood as a study of these competing jargons. Polly Alter, recently divorced at thirty-nine, sets out to write the biography of a little-known painter of genius, Lorin Jones, whose obscurity and death resulted (Polly will argue) from brutal abuse by the patriarchal system. Armed with her prejudices and a tape recorder, Polly is deflected and altered by everyone she interviews. Each witness creates a different version of Lorin or Lolly or Lauren or Laurie Jones because each witness is already a distinct individual, with a particular slant on the truth.
Lurie's conception bears some resemblance to Nabokov's in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: the zealous biographer always writes his own autobiography, and must even become his subject's double for a time. Polly learns that lesson deeply, ruefully. Her...
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SOURCE: Milton, Edith. “The Year in Fiction: 1988.” Massachusetts Review 30, no. 1 (spring 1989): 102-21.
[In the following excerpt, Milton asserts that Lurie employs clever technique in The Truth about Lorin Jones by writing a novel about writing but finds shortcomings in the novel's narrow focus and feminist concerns.]
In any review of the year's fiction what the reviewer thinks about the books he chooses is certainly less important than what books he chooses to think about. I arbitrarily excluded short stories and translations from this piece—on the grounds that these would make a sufficiently complicated task impossible. But once my focus was narrowed to novels written in English and published in this country during 1988, once I was going about the business of making my selection in earnest, I realized my choices may need some defense.
For these ten books, the limit to which a review will stretch, reveal shamefully that my interest lies much less in what people are writing than in what they are reading. Where are the small press books? The post-modernist no longer avant-garde? The thousands of books untouched by The New York Times Book Review? This review is perhaps just where they belong, but they have been usurped here, as everywhere else, by the popular, literate novels you are likely to find among the Book-of-the-Month-Club alternate selections and in the...
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SOURCE: Rogers, Katharine M. “Alison Lurie: The Uses of Adultery.” In American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, pp. 115-28. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989.
[In the following essay, Rogers examines Lurie's dissection of traditional marital inequities and her presentation of sexual infidelity as a catalyst for newfound self-awareness and independence among the passive, self-sacrificing women characters of her novels.]
By entitling her first novel Love and Friendship, Alison Lurie invited comparison with an author whom she resembles in her area of interest, in her disenchanted view of human nature, in her coolly ironic puncturing of pretension. Like Jane Austen, Lurie characteristically focuses on the development of a woman's identity, through increasing self-knowledge and decision-making, and portrays this through her character's relationships with men. But while Austen shows her heroines maturing as they move toward their proper choice in marriage, Lurie shows them maturing afterward, as they try other life choices, typically represented by an adulterous affair. Thus, she can deal with older women: while Austen's heroines, who must be marriageable in nineteenth-century terms, range from seventeen (Marianne Dashwood) to twenty-seven (Anne Elliot), Lurie's can range from twenty-seven (Emily Turner) to fifty-four (Vinnie Miner)....
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SOURCE: Bolle, Sonja. Review of Don't Tell the Grown-Ups, by Alison Lurie. Los Angeles Times Book Review (11 March 1990): 6.
[In the following review, Bolle praises Don't Tell the Grown-Ups for Lurie's interesting opposition to feminists who dismiss fairy tales as patronizing to women.]
“There exists in our world an unusual, partly savage tribe, ancient and widely distributed, yet, until recently little studied by anthropologists or historians. All of us were at one time members of this tribe; we knew its customs, manners and rituals, its folklore and sacred texts. I refer, of course, to children,” writes novelist and English professor Alison Lurie in this collection of essays on children's literature [Don't Tell the Grown-Ups]. There are two kinds of children's books, she asserts: improving and subversive. The latter category constitutes the texts her “partly savage tribe” holds sacred.
And rightly so, Lurie maintains. She remembers discovering very early on that the moralistic story books that passed for appropriate children's entertainment in her own youth were quickly proven useless: “The simple, pleasant adult society they had prepared us for did not exist. As we had suspected, the fairy tales had been right all along—the world was full of hostile, stupid giants and perilous castles and people who abandoned their children in the nearest forest. To...
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SOURCE: Illick, Joseph E. “Telling Another Fairy Tale.” New Leader 73, no. 6 (16 April 1990): 20-1.
[In the following review, Illick finds shortcomings in Lurie's generalized view of children's literature and lack of historical perspective in Don't Tell the Grown-Ups.]
The most intriguing book on children's literature is Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment (1976). Arguing that an acquaintanceship with literature can give meaning to children's lives—not just any literature, not myths of superhuman feats or moralistic fables, but fairy tales that capture human development in symbolic terms—Bettelheim conveys the message evident throughout his writings: Life is a struggle (in the case of the child, a struggle to organize the chaotic unconscious) that can be won. For a youngster, who must win victory at the unconscious level without parental intrusion, fairy tales provide a means of gaining mastery over emotional turmoil and growing toward the achievement of rational decision-making.
The notion that fairy tales have a universal quality was challenged by historian Robert Darnton. He faulted Bettelheim for not grounding the tales he talked about in a particular time and place, specifically 17th-century rural France. Their characters, Darnton observed, exhibit the traits of cunning necessary for survival among peasants in that culture. Without forsaking my respect for...
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SOURCE: Smith, Janet Adam. “Unchildish Activities.” New York Review of Books 37, no. 7 (26 April 1990): 45.
[In the following review, Smith offers a positive assessment of Don't Tell the Grown-Ups, calling the work a “witty and enlightening survey.”]
“Somebody's been putting ideas into your head”—there, down the ages, is the voice of authority, in the form of parent, nanny, teacher, when faced with questions that threaten received ideas and their privilege of “Allow me to know best.” That they have been busily putting ideas into children's heads—ideas of behavior, morality, and the status quo—is quite another story. E. Nesbit hit off the type in her invention (in “The Cockatoucan”) of the nurse-maid transformed into the Automatic Nagging Machine, which ejects little rolls of paper carrying messages like “Don't be tiresome.”
Now comes a nice reversal. Here is Teacher herself [in Don't Tell the Grown-Ups] encouraging subversion in the classroom and at home—or at least showing us how many of the best children's books, approved by authority, carry a hidden charge that may put explosive ideas into a child's head. Alison Lurie teaches children's literature at Cornell; she takes children's books very seriously, but without being overly solemn; she resents the apartheid that keeps them in special sections in libraries and in readers' minds; and she...
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SOURCE: Gerrard, Nicci. “Alison in Wonderland.” New Statesman and Society 86, no. 1428 (25 May 1990): 32-3.
[In the following review, Gerrard commends Lurie's biographical sketches of various children's writers in Don't Tell the Grown-Ups but faults Lurie's overly-determined, excessively narrow critical approach and analysis.]
“‘There's glory for you!’ ‘I don't know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said. ‘I meant, “there's a nice knock-down argument for you!”’ ‘But glory doesn't mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected. ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’”
Children love lifting up stones to discover hidden life, poking in rock pools, hiding in long grass where grown-ups can't see them, making up secret languages, introducing chaos or creating their own rules. Crawl under a table, and it is a house; turn it upside down and it is a boat. And books can turn the world upside down for children or, quantum-like, superimpose another, hidden one. Fantasy, for them, is as real as adult “reality” (there are fairies at the bottom of the garden and lands at the end of a rabbit hole). When Alice in Through the Looking Glass says, “One can't believe impossible things”, the Queen is pitying: “I dare say you...
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SOURCE: Townsend, Juliet. “The Pure Pleasure of Being Naughty.” Spectator 264, no. 8449 (16 June 1990): 30-1.
[In the following review, Townsend argues that Lurie's linking theme of “subversive children's literature” in Don't Tell the Grown-Ups is neither coherent nor convincing.]
It is E. Nesbit who points out that, in order to succeed as a writer for children it is not necessary to have children of one's own, nor even to know any children. The one essential is to retain a clear memory, unclouded by sentiment or nostalgia, of one's childhood; not just of events, but of feelings and thoughts and attitudes. Very few people have this power of recall, which is one reason why very few people write good children's books. Alison Lurie, in her study of what she calls ‘subversive children's literature’ [Don't Tell the Grown-Ups] makes a clear distinction between subjects which adults have traditionally thought suitable for the young and those, far more robust, which are the true stuff of playground rhymes and the stories which children tell each other. Saki's The Storyteller sums up the attraction of the ‘subversive’ approach perfectly, as the children hang with breathless satisfaction on the fate of the virtuous little girl, betrayed to the ravening wolf by the clanking of the medals she has won for punctuality and good behaviour. Certainly the books that speak most strongly...
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SOURCE: Harries, Susie. “Performance Fashion.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4662 (7 August 1992): 10.
[In the following excerpt, Harries compliments The Language of Clothes, arguing that Lurie's statements regarding clothing and dress are witty and authoritative.]
“Clothes hurt us”, writes Quentin Bell, “in a pecuniary, a physical, an aesthetic and frequently a moral sense; they are (very often) expensive, unhealthy, ugly and immodest.” From this perspective, the pursuit of fashion is an irrational activity—and an irresistible subject for analysis. Why do we dress as we do? …
Laying bare the subtext of popular culture has been Alison Lurie's speciality ever since she revealed that Rabbit and Owl were A. A. Milne's parents. And in The Language of Clothes (first published in 1981, now issued in a revised version by Bloomsbury), she is as insistent as [Colin] McDowell that there is more to clothes than meets the eye.
McDowell's argument is “deliberately discursive”. Alison Lurie's is an elegant, well-ordered, unified construct, a full-dress exposition of a single metaphor. Clothes, in her view, are a medium for unconscious communication, a language with its own vocabulary, grammar and syntax. We may “speak” with an accent or local dialect: rural British dress, for instance, she finds to be distinguished by its determination to...
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SOURCE: Costa, Richard Hauer. “Alison Lurie and the Critics.” In Alison Lurie, pp. 75-83. New York, NY: Twayne, 1992.
[In the following essay, Costa provides an overview of critical response to Lurie's work and the formation of her literary reputation, particularly as established in discussion of her two most prominently reviewed and debated novels, The War between the Tates and Foreign Affairs.]
THE MEDIA'S MASSAGE
Reviewers, by and large, have treated Alison Lurie well but superficially, as a sampling of dust-jacket endorsements reflects: poet James Merrill called her “the wisest woman in America”; Truman Capote believed The War between the Tates was a book Jane Austen would enjoy; Gore Vidal crowned her the “Queen Herod of modern fiction.” The War between the Tates brought her a place on the best-seller list, an international audience, and a media image as an irreverent satirist of middle-brow America.
Fortunately for sales but unfortunately for Lurie's credibility as a serious novelist, she has for nearly two decades been locked into this image. John Skow set the tone with his flippantly respectful review in Time of The War between the Tates (“In this summer-weight comedy of hanky-panky in a university town, the apple is a little mushy, but worm and novel are in the best of health”).1 The three...
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SOURCE: Chappell, Fred. “Not for Children Only.” Washington Post Book World (9 May 1993): 2.
[In the following review, Chappell offers praise for The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales, lauding Lurie's diverse selections of material.]
In such an anthology as Alison Lurie's The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales we should expect to find, as we do, familiar classics like George MacDonald's “The Light Princess,” shining discoveries like Joan Aiken's “The Man Who Had Seen the Rope Trick,” and stories whose classification as fairy tale is debatable—like Ursula LeGuin's “The Wife's Story.” Perhaps also we should be disappointed not to find a genuine clinker or two; here Donald Barthelme's cutesy and embarrassingly self-conscious “The Glass Mountain” fulfills that dutiful dim role. And I suppose that we ought to be able to mourn the absence of old favorites like Rudyard Kipling's “Weland's Sword” and Saki's “The Story-Teller.”
That is because anthologies, and particularly such highly specialized volumes as this one, are supposed to provide a resplendent peacock fan of choices that reassures and intrigues us and provokes our thinking. Is Bernard Malamud's “The Jewbird” really a fairy tale? If we say that it is only a symbolic fable, have we not diminished some of its mordant humor by divesting it of tradition? And if we disallow “The Jewbird”...
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SOURCE: Barron, Janet. “Frogspawn.” New Statesman and Society 6, no. 254 (28 May 1993): 40-1.
[In the following review, Barron faults the selection of stories in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales and criticizes the use of the word “modern” in the title of the anthology.]
The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales is fey and sometimes feisty, but definitely a volume aimed at adults and not young children. Some of these stories would satisfy kids as bedtime beguilement, but there is an undertone of a peculiarly disturbing quality. “Modern fairy tales” is something of a misnomer. The first story in the book was written in 1839, and of the 40 stories, only 14 date from after the second world war. It is packed with princesses and frogs, dragons and demons, and strange countries where forests spring up at the drop of a comb and lakes appear through magical mirrors.
Alison Lurie has a fine sense of the magic of fairy tales, yet somehow the collection she has assembled here fails to enchant. The introduction is less than incisive, and mainly consists of plot summaries of the stories we are about to read. The stories themselves are good, if taken in moderation. Some are political allegories, such as Ruskin's The King of the Golden River or George MacDonald's The Light Princess, which is a philosophical spoof in the vein of Johnson's Rasselas....
(The entire section is 639 words.)
SOURCE: Bayley, John. “Stand the Baby on Its Head.” London Review of Books 15, no. 14 (22 July 1993): 19-20.
[In the following excerpt, Bayley praises the selection of stories in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales.]
What is the point of fairy tales? Morals, politics, economics? Yes, but that gets us nowhere. Poetry, fantasy, romance? Why not archness, whimsy, sentiment? The poetical fairy tale, even a wry modern one like Thurber's ‘The Unicorn in the Garden’, is apt to be soft and-sticky. The best are startling and mysterious but also commonplace. Before she died Angela Carter made a few notes for what was to be the introduction to her second collection of traditional tales. ‘The unperplexedness of the story. Fairy tales—cunning and high spirits.’ That comes as close as anything.
The unperplexedness of the story means that it knows what it is doing and where it is going, but neither knows nor cares what it means. An invisible barrier separates old from new fairy stories, like the glass wall round the princess in Andrew Lang's Crimson Fairy Book. In the new ones, however accomplished and diverting they may be, the meaning is clear but coyly hidden, as in many modern fictions; although the examples sought out by Alison Lurie [in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales] have as much cunning and high spirits in them as the old tales. In Ursula LeGuin's...
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SOURCE: Warner, Marina. “The Flavour of Utopia.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4713 (30 July 1993): 7.
[In the following review, Warner finds Lurie's selections in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales somewhat arbitrary due to the volume's lack of unifying linguistic, literary, or historical context.]
Children play adult games (pretending to be the Mafia in Sicily, Jack the Ripper in London). Fairy-tales, as a branch of literature, frequently represent the reverse: grown-ups pretending childlikeness in order to make things better. Novalis wrote in his notebooks, “a child is good deal cleverer and wiser than an adult—but the child must be an ironic child”. This kind of child, he continued, could tell stories that were “a prophetic account of things—an ideal account”: fairy-tale. Masked as a young, clever and wise innocent, the writer could imagine the ideal in fantasies; play-acting a child who is an ideal child, the teller of fairy stories could produce a special flavour of irony—the wishful thinking of Utopia.
Alison Lurie's selection of forty-one fairy-tales [in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales] develops the idea of the genre as this kind of social parable, working at several registers, from the eldritch (Robert Louis Stevenson's “The Song of the Morrow”) to the cheerfully loony (Carl Sandburg). In the earliest tale, “Uncle David's...
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SOURCE: Tatar, Maria. “Disobedience.” New Republic 209, no. 20 (15 November 1993): 39-41.
[In the following review, Tatar discusses the diversity and “elasticity” of the fairy-tale genre and praises many of Lurie's choices for inclusion in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales.]
Some years back Roald Dahl pointed out that adults are unyielding in their efforts to civilize “this thing that when it is born is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all.” The urge to enlighten, educate and regulate—to reduce the chances for moments of successful truancy—has inscribed itself with particular intensity on the literature we produce and read to children. Some authors, like Dahl in Mathilda or The Witches, resist the temptation to exercise disciplinary power by conspiring with the child against the adult; others, like Maurice Sendak (whose credentials for producing children's books include being a “former child”), are able to resurrect the child within as they write their narratives. Theirs are the books that celebrate those triple evils of childhood—disobedience, an idle imagination and curiosity—cheerfully extolling transgressive behavior and deviations from the social norm. In Don't Tell the Grown-Ups, Alison Lurie called these books “subversive children's literature,” for they challenge the rules set down by adults and endorse a rebellious spirit and...
(The entire section is 2688 words.)
SOURCE: Clark, Alex. “Spectres and Sibyls.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4759 (17 June 1994): 23.
[In the following review, Clark evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of several stories within Women and Ghosts, asserting that Lurie's writing displays wit, irony, and a deft touch.]
Alison Lurie has for many years continued to create quietly explosive comedies revolving around the foibles of upper-middle-class Americans, particularly academics or those in academic communities. Her writing transforms itself through its ability at once to satirize and sympathize, urging her readers towards careful interpretations of complex human behaviour. In this collection of nine ghost stories, her talent for subtlety and equivocation is to the fore, making its force felt in the sheer range and diversity of characters and in the inventiveness of the situations they find themselves in.
Women and Ghosts perhaps has most in common with Lurie's 1967 novel, Imaginary Friends, a story of mental disintegration based on the infiltration of a religious cult by two sociologists. The targets of its sharp and ironic wit were the notion of academic objectivity and the power of charismatic figures, summed up by its seemingly innocuous epigram, “Seek and ye shall find”: if you're looking hard enough for something, you'll probably find it, even if you end up by inventing it. The...
(The entire section is 887 words.)
SOURCE: Hughes, Kathryn. “Good Spirits.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 307 (17 June 1994): 38-9.
[In the following review, Hughes offers praise for the first and last stories in Women and Ghosts but laments the mixed quality of the rest of the collection.]
It is six years since Alison Lurie's last novel, The Truth about Lorin Jones. Since then she has been attending to her other life as professor of literature at Cornell. Women and Ghosts marks her welcome, though slight, return to fiction.
Here are nine short stories about women who are surprised, pestered but not exactly scared by a rag-tag collection of thoroughly modern ghosts. There is the dieting secretary pursued by fat people or the obnoxious middle-aged woman drowned in her swimming pool by the vengeful spirits of two former employees. Sparkiest is Celia Zimmern, who is obliged to go on hot dates chaperoned by the whiny shade of her dead fiancé, the dismal Dwayne Mudd.
Not all the ghosts are human. In “The Highboy” a piece of fancy furniture will do anything—including murdering its owner—to avoid being put into a museum. And then there's the lacklustre postgraduate who takes his devotion to Wordsworth so seriously that he turns into a Lakeside sheep.
The best stories are the first and the last. In “Ilse's House,” a young woman called Dinah Kieran is...
(The entire section is 580 words.)
SOURCE: Taylor, D. J. “Beginning with Revelations.” Spectator 272, no. 8658 (18 June 1994): 34.
[In the following review, Taylor faults Women and Ghosts, contending that the collection suffers from over-explication and laborious detail rather than employing understatement and subtlety.]
What makes a good ghost story? Apart from their scholarly background, which allows antiquarian heroes to delve into matters best left unturned, the classic supernatural tales of M. R. James and Sheridan Le Fanu (whom James acknowledged as an influence) tend to follow a distinctive narrative line. A generally innocuous preamble, often involving the arrival of a stranger in an unfamiliar locale, is followed by a warning: in fact one of James's best stories is called ‘A Warning to the Curious’. This is routinely ignored, whereupon the ghastliness in the wood-shed declares itself, is repulsed, circumvented or otherwise dealt with, and the story rounded off with some kind of explanation. James's stories, in particular, bring off their effects by creating a sense of foreboding which is somehow intangible: the threat is there, but rarely flagrant. The horror, when it comes, succeeds by way of understatement. One of the nastiest scenes in English literature occurs in ‘Casting the Runes’ when, in a darkened room, holding a candle that has just gone out, a man puts his hand under the pillow and feels the outline...
(The entire section is 691 words.)
SOURCE: Newman, Judie. “Paleface into Redskin: Cultural Transformations in Alison Lurie's Foreign Affairs.” In Forked Tongues? Comparing Twentieth-Century British and American Literature, edited by Ann Massa and Alistair Stead, pp. 188-205. London and New York: Longman, 1994.
[In the following essay, Newman examines the use of intertextual literary themes and cultural slippages in Foreign Affairs, contending that, rather than reinforcing the fictional stereotypes of Henry James, Frances Hodges Burnett, or John Gay, Lurie subverts traditional clashes between Americans and Europeans and nature and culture to reveal the generative possibilities inherent in such interacting oppositions.]
A critic once divided American writers into two camps, the Palefaces and the Redskins. The Redskins looked west, toward the frontier, responded to the more physical and natural aspects of life, and often wrote in a style which expressed raw experience rather than literary form. The Palefaces looked east, wrote of those peculiarly elusive areas in American life, society and manners, and were preoccupied with craft and formal brilliance.1
With these words, Malcolm Bradbury opens his review of Alison Lurie's Foreign Affairs. Following in the footsteps of Philip Rahv, the critic in question,2 Bradbury designates Lurie as a Paleface,...
(The entire section is 8149 words.)
SOURCE: Banville, John. “The Un-Heimlich Maneuver.” New York Review of Books 42, no. 2 (2 February 1995): 25-7.
[In the following excerpt, Banville offers a mixed assessment of Women and Ghosts, which he finds characteristically well-written despite its uneven weight and interest.]
The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species.
—Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Why do we find ghost stories more pleasurable than frightening? Perhaps because they lull us into a state of coziness by turning our worst fears into the stuff of entertainment. In the ghost story the terrors of childhood and of mankind's primitive past are transformed into a kind of joke—a jest, or gest. As in all jokes, however, there is in this process an element of the scandalous. In his essay “The ‘Uncanny,’”1 Freud cites Schelling's definition of the word: “‘Unheimlich’ is the name for everything that ought to have remained … secret and hidden but has come to light,” and goes on to say, revealing as he so often does his debt to Nietzsche:
All supposedly educated people have ceased to believe officially that the dead can become visible as spirits, and have made any such appearances dependent on improbable and remote conditions; their emotional...
(The entire section is 878 words.)
SOURCE: Hallissy, Margaret. Review of The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales, edited by Alison Lurie. Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 2 (spring 1995): 267-68.
[In the following review, Hallissy asserts that the appeal of the selections in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales lies in the stories' variations on established, traditional fairy-tale themes and elements.]
Like the Bible and Arthuriana, fairy tales stimulate creativity in ways that other literature does not; nobody rewrites Hamlet, but Job and Lancelot and Cinderella continually reappear in modern dress. Whereas the original fairy tales can be read on various levels by children and adults, these modern redactions are for adults only. These modern writers employ resonances from the reader's childhood with the conventional characters, images, and situations of the fairy tale as themes upon which they play variations.
The reader of modern fairy tales brings to the experience a mind already well populated by stock character types. As in the tabloid press, the doings of the royals are featured, princesses are beautiful, princes handsome. When people have children, they usually have either one (long-awaited and therefore special) or three (one of whom, usually the youngest, is differentiated sharply from the other two). Adult female types are shaped by the primordial images of the good and bad mother. The...
(The entire section is 528 words.)
SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “A Grudge against Men.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4964 (22 May 1998): 8.
[In the following review, Annan finds shortcomings in The Last Resort's treatment of feminism and love.]
Alison Lurie's novels add up to an American Dance to the Music of Time, with the music modulating into a minor feminist key. As in Anthony Powell's sequence, characters from the earlier novels turn up again in later ones. But this is a smaller world. Everyone in it—except for deliberately dissonant outsiders—is an artist, writer, academic, or married to one. They are anchored either in New York or in East Coast Universities called Corinth or Convers, not unlike Cornell, where Lurie is Professor of American Literature. In her fourth novel, Real People (1969), a selection of her regulars are on view at a writers' retreat called Illyria. Writers and artists can escape to this beautiful country estate for a subsidized respite from their normal grind, and get on with creative work. The place once belonged to Undine Moffat, the heroine of Edith Wharton's novel The Custom of the Country; but real people like Milton Avery and Robert Lowell have stayed there (though none is in residence at the time of the action). This crossover between fact and fiction is as modern or postmodern as Lurie allows herself to get; she is a conservative writer.
(The entire section is 1986 words.)
SOURCE: Craig, Amanda. “A Jane for Our Age.” New Statesman 127, no. 4386 (22 May 1998): 56-7.
[In the following review, Craig argues that The Last Resort is a “masterpiece,” contending that Lurie writes with great wit and attention to detail.]
The Last Resort refers to both a location and an action. Wilkie Walker, an eminent naturalist, has come to Key West, an exotic seaside resort at the far end of Florida, to commit suicide. His reason for doing so is that he suspects he has colonic cancer, and does not wish his wife Jenny to know he is a dying man.
If this were Tolstoy or Mann, we would be pretty sure of the outcome: the doomed hero, after much private suffering, would walk into the sea and drown. That, in the male canon, is what literature is supposed to be about. This, however, is Alison Lurie, who never confuses the serious with the solemn. In the past she has written about love, friendship and the relationship between art and life; now, she has written about what age, sickness and the intimations of mortality do to human beings. In doing so, she has produced a masterpiece.
The particular joy of Lurie's writing is her perception that the most intelligent and intolerant are often those whose grasp of events is most faulty: in other words, the very people who are most likely to enjoy her novels are allowed a god-like vision of their own...
(The entire section is 704 words.)
SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “Death in the Sun Postponed.” Spectator 280, no. 8862 (13 June 1998): 40.
[In the following review, Brookner concludes that The Last Resort will satisfy Lurie's admirers but is lacking in seriousness and edge.]
Into the stagy, semi-tropical setting of Key West—frangipani, hibiscus, bougainvillea, mosquito nets—come two refugees from the icy campus of Convers College, many miles to the north in New England. They are a respectable married couple, Wilkie Walker, famous naturalist and ecologist, heroic populariser and signer of books, and his submissive wife Jenny who does most of his research and all of his secretarial work. He is 70 and, although his wife is ignorant of the fact, a troubled man. He suspects that he may have a mortal illness (illness abounds in this novel [The Last Resort], although it is dealt with rather cutely) and is wondering how to effect his suicide in such a way that it will not adversely affect his reputation.
Since the layout of Key West lends itself to such accidents he has determined simply to swim out to sea and let nature take its course. Nature will do that anyway, but he knows too much about nature, having spent his entire professional life patronising endangered species. It has only now occurred to him that he is an endangered species in his own right, as, apparently, are all the other inhabitants of Key West,...
(The entire section is 966 words.)
SOURCE: Mantel, Hilary. “Escape Artists.” New York Review of Books 45, no. 17 (5 November 1998): 23-4, 26.
[In the following excerpt, Mantel lauds The Last Resort but cites shortcomings in the novel's supporting cast and narrative structure.]
It is dangerous to stray outside New England, to places where the chill predictabilities of winter are overlapped by the warm ocean currents of self-indulgence and self-deceit: to places where the bracing necessities of shoveling snow are replaced by the velvet and slippery deceptions of bodily warmth. Harry DeKroll entertains mild regrets for Key West in the days when it offered “the great escape,” for days when easily available mind-altering substances adjusted reality more effectively than today's intake of con leche and Oprah. Harry the Housesitter is the narrator of Ann Beattie's new story “The Siamese Twins Go Snorkeling.” He stands by and watches someone else get a life (and employ him to service it), while he himself is occupied with work on “Great American Novel about drifters in Key West; yes, it will have been written before, but ne'er so well expressed.”
Alison Lurie, by contrast, has invented a character [in The Last Resort] who in Key West is at odds with everyone around him. He alone has a stern purpose: it is suicide. For others, day devolves sweetly into day, heat and luxuriance...
(The entire section is 1839 words.)
SOURCE: Oldham, Gerda. Review of The Last Resort, by Alison Lurie. Antioch Review 57, no. 1 (winter 1999): 109-10.
[In the following review, Oldham provides an overview of the plot and characters of The Last Resort.]
Key West, the “last resort” of the novel [The Last Resort], is the place where characters in Lurie's tale meet; some of them are year-round residents like Jacko, a gardener who has just learned that he is HIV-positive, Molly Hopkins, who did covers for the New Yorker in the good old days, and Lee Weiss, an ex-psychologist who now runs a B. & B. for women. “Having been a therapist came in useful, Lee said, when neighbors or guests got difficult. It's simple, she had explained. All you do is, you just repeat the last thing they said, and it makes them think you're sympathetic and sort of defuses the situation.” Others are there for a winter vacation or plan to spend the cold months there, like Wilkie and Jennie Walker. Wilkie, a well-known writer on the environment and endangered species, agreed to come with a secret agenda in mind. Since he believes he is suffering from an incurable disease, he plans to drown himself while ostensibly swimming for exercise. Jennie is 25 years younger than he and has been the perfect wife for a productive writer, taking care of all the details of his professional and personal life. Until recently it was a loving relationship;...
(The entire section is 339 words.)
SOURCE: Simon, Linda. “Something That Is Gone.” World and I 14, no. 2 (February 1999): 285.
[In the following review, Simon comments that Lurie displays her talents as an astute observer of quirky, trendy, contemporary life in The Last Resort.]
Since 1962, when she published her first novel, Love and Friendship, Alison Lurie has carved out a special literary territory: troubled marriages in academia, bewilderment among the intelligentsia. As Lurie sees it, being well read and articulate does not guard against bad, bumbling, or silly choices. Erudition does not grant immunity from the longings that beset a wider range of humanity: the desire to transgress the boundaries of one's identity, to break some rules, to seek excitement—even, perhaps, a bit of wildness.
Among her eight previous novels, perhaps the best known is The War between the Tates, published in 1974, which charts the messy marital problems of a political science professor, Brian Tate, and his wife, Erica. The novel is set in the academic community of Corinth University (read Cornell, where Lurie, a professor in the English department, teaches children's literature). Brian, suffering from a typical midlife crisis, has an affair with one of his students; when Erica discovers his adultery, it precipitates her own noisy crisis.
But Lurie is interested in more than turbulence in the Tates'...
(The entire section is 1793 words.)
SOURCE: Newman, Judie. “Biographical Introduction.” In Alison Lurie: A Critical Study, pp. 4-27. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000.
[In the following essay, Newman provides an overview of Lurie's early life and education, her formative experiences with the Poets' Theatre, the origin of recurring themes and characters in her fiction, and the inadequacies of her critical appraisal.]
When Alison Lurie was first a student at Radcliffe, only one class in creative writing was available, taught by Robert Hillyer, a handsome minor poet whose manner struck Lurie as courtly, but curiously vague. (She did not suspect that he had a drinking problem.) For several weeks Hillyer collected the students' efforts, but never returned them, preferring to read aloud from his favourite books, slowly but with maximum emotion.
Finally one day he entered the room, pulled from his briefcase what looked like all the work he had ever received from us, heaped it onto the desk and sat down. We waited expectantly. “Yer-all-such-nice-young-ladies. Only you can't write, y'know. Wasting-yer-time.” Then he put his head down among our papers and passed out.1
Hillyer was signally wrong about one, at least, of his students. Alison Lurie went on to produce nine novels, a volume of short stories, a biographical memoir, works for children, a study of the...
(The entire section is 9527 words.)
SOURCE: Marks, Jim. “Uncommon Friends.” Washington Post Book World (11 February 2001): 12.
[In the following review, Marks praises Familiar Spirits, judging the book to be an honest and skillful memoir of poet James Merrill and his partner David Jackson.]
A faint whiff of vindication almost inevitably attends Familiar Spirits, Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Alison Lurie's totally absorbing memoir of her friends poet James Merrill and his longtime companion, writer and artist David Jackson. After all, she is at some pains to depict herself at the beginning of their friendship, in the mid-1950s, as an ordinary Amherst faculty wife struggling with the ordinary tribulations of limited funds, young children and an academic world in which women are valued primarily (and not too highly) for their skill in advancing their husbands' careers.
In such a world, Merrill and Jackson were anything but ordinary. They were both rich—Merrill, the son of Charles Merrill, the founder of Merrill Lynch, considerably so. They were both well-traveled, well-educated, cultured men whose open domestic relationship was decidedly unusual in the '50s, although apparently not scandalous in their closed academic circle. To Lurie, Merrill was the more original character, while Jackson was “wonderfully attractive: blond, tanned, strong.” Yet both these amazing creatures are departed—Merrill,...
(The entire section is 847 words.)
SOURCE: Davison, Peter. Review of Familiar Spirits, by Alison Lurie. Atlantic Monthly 287, no. 3 (March 2001): 91-2.
[In the following review, Davison judges Familiar Spirits to be a powerful, moving, and “revealing tribute” to James Merrill and David Jackson.]
Sometimes an impressionistic memoir after the death of a literary figure can be definitive. The precision of a friend's intimate memory furnishes a connection to the senses, a stimulus to intuitive understanding, that a sedulous biographical assembly of documentary facts cannot match. In Familiar Spirits, Alison Lurie has written a revealing, happily far from objective tribute to and critique of the relationship between James Merrill and his life-and-literary partner, David Jackson. It conveys the bitter flavor of lives tried and failed. It rivals the pungency and impact of Lurie's lovely early work, V. R. Lang: A Memoir, which was published forty years ago under a subsidy by, yes, James Merrill and David Jackson.
Merrill and Jackson became lovers and partners in 1954 and shared financially well-endowed lives in Stonington, Connecticut, Athens, and Key West for all the years till Merrill's death (from AIDS), in 1995. Lurie contends (and I find her evidence highly persuasive) that Merrill's verse epic of encounters on the Ouija board, The Changing Light at Sandover, not only rose out of the...
(The entire section is 332 words.)
SOURCE: Holleran, Andrew. “Shrimp Bisque and Yellow Underpants.” Lambda Book Report 9, no. 8 (March 2001): 21.
[In the following review, Holleran contends that Familiar Spirits is a revealing and honest recounting of Lurie's friendship with David Jackson and James Merrill.]
Most of us want the marriages of our friends to be perfect. This, of course, includes gay couples. We like to visit the happy pair, soak up their hospitality, use them as a point of stability in our lives. Yet we can never know the backstage scenes and bargains, the real dynamic behind the facade that married couples, especially when they happen to be our hosts, construct to charm us; and that is, among other things, the subject of Alison Lurie's Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson that recounts her friendship over several decades with the poet, who died in 1995, and his partner David Jackson, who still lives in Key West.
Investigating marriage is something that Lurie has done before in novels like The War between the Tates. The partnership of Jackson and Merrill was by no means a war—it seems to have been particularly civilized—and yet, like all marriages, especially one between two writers with two very different careers, it had its issues. By the time we reach Chapter 10 (“Trouble”) and read the lines “When did it all begin to go bad, slowly at first and...
(The entire section is 1138 words.)
SOURCE: Corn, Alfred. “Merrill Table Talk.” Nation 273, no. 6 (20 April 2001): 28.
[In the following review, Corn offers a negative assessment of Familiar Spirits, noting that the memoir focuses too heavily on Lurie's personal gripes with James Merrill.]
Describing Alison Lurie's fiction as a decades-long debate with James Merrill explains a lot about her and, by extension, American culture in general. This memoir, [Familiar Spirits,] her second work of nonfiction, tells how they met in the mid-1950s, Lurie the bored, intelligent faculty wife of a dullish junior English professor at Amherst, Merrill a visiting teacher of poetry writing. Lurie says that he paid to have her first book privately printed, a memoir of their friend V. R. Lang, which led to the publication of Lurie's first novel Love and Friendship. She acknowledges that her novel includes a character combining traits drawn from Merrill and from his companion David Jackson, though this character appears only in epistolary form, the gay author of witty letters about his visiting gig in a college town resembling Amherst—at least, as a satirist would see it.
Familiar Spirits doesn't recount the remainder of Lurie's career as a fiction writer, but I'll support my opening comment above by pointing out that her third novel, an expose of the world of mediums and spiritualist mysticism, is dedicated...
(The entire section is 2259 words.)
SOURCE: Kirsch, Adam. “All That Glitters.” New Republic 224 (7 May 2001): 40.
[In the following review, Kirsch compares James Merrill's Collected Poems to Lurie's Familiar Spirits.]
Proust's Madeleine has become the popular shorthand for his novel, the Atlantis of memory resurfacing after a single taste of a cookie dipped in tea. In fact, Proust's metaphor for remembering is much more arduous:
I place in position before my mind's eye the still recent taste of that first mouthful, and I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting place and attempts to rise, something that has been embedded like an anchor at a great depth; I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed. … Ten times over I must essay the task, must lean down over the abyss.
It is instructive to compare James Merrill's rival metaphor for the process that turns life into art, in his poem “For Proust”:
What happened is becoming literature.
Feverish in time, if you suspend the task, An old. old woman shuffling in to draw Curtains, will read a line or two, withdraw. The world will have put on a thin gold mask.
The poet has made the novelist over in his own image, his very...
(The entire section is 3944 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter, by Alison Lurie. Publisher's Weekly 249, no. 48 (2 December 2002): 45.
[In the following review, the critic offers praise for Lurie's observations regarding children's literature in Boys and Girls Forever.]
A perceptive critic, Lurie (Don't Tell the Grown-Ups) has long been a close observer of children's literature. This welcome volume [Boys and Girls Forever] collects a number of her essays on the subject, most of which appeared in other versions in the New York Review of Books. As she wittily deconstructs the lives and works of authors as varied as Louisa May Alcott (“she was the daughter of what would now be described as vegetarian hippie intellectuals, with fringe religious and social beliefs, and spent nearly a year of her childhood in an unsuccessful commune”), Hans Christian Andersen, J. K. Rowling and Dr. Seuss, a common theme emerges, for Lurie contends that those who write best for children are “in some essential way … children themselves.” James Barrie liked to play pirates and Indians: Babar author Laurent de Brunhoff climbed trees into his 70s and John Masefield's daughter described him as “a wonderful playmate—essentially, another child.” Children's book authors may bristle at this assertion, as well as at Lurie's somewhat offhand dismissal of the art of...
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Bobrick, Elizabeth. “Arrested Development.” Women's Review of Books 20, no. 7 (April 2003): 8-11.
Bobrick evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter.
Busch, Frederick. “What Shall We Tell the Children?” Los Angeles Times Book Review (3 October 1993): 1, 13.
Busch praises Lurie's intentions in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales, but regrets several omissions from the volume.
Givhan, Robin. “Making a Statement.” Washington Post Book World (16 April 2000): 8-9.
Givhan asserts that The Language of Clothes is a careful, astute examination of the messages sent by fashion and the evolving nature and customs of apparel.
Gussow, Mel. “Comedies of Manners, Laced with Morals.” New York Times (5 September 1998): B9.
Gussow provides an overview of Lurie's fiction and critical reception upon the publication of The Last Resort.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Scenes from a (Faltering) Marriage.” New York Times (3 July 1998): E32.
Kakutani offers a negative assessment of The Last Resort.
Kruse, Horst. “Museums and Manners: The Novels of Alison Lurie.” Anglia: Zeitschrift fur Englische...
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