Lurie, Alison 1926–
Lurie is an American novelist who weighs in her satirical comedies of manners the impact of fidelity and infidelity on marriage and the community. The War Between the Tates is her best known novel. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
That "Only Children" is really a novel of the 1970's set in the Depression years is clear from its concentration on issues that have become much-discussed lately: the role of women in and out of marriage; the nature of "love"; distorted male perceptions of women … [and] equally distorted and cynical female perceptions of men. (p. 7)
Though set on a farm, "Only Children" is really a sort of drawing-room comedy. It is formally plotted: It begins and ends with the Hubbards in their old Franklin car, struggling in traffic; each chapter is laid out in a scrupulous workmanlike way, usually involving two characters who, chatting at first about incidental matters, become quite frank with each other (though their revelations—and no doubt this is part of Alison Lurie's satiric vision—bring them to no lasting changes in their lives)….
At the novel's conclusion no one appears to be much wiser except, perhaps, the troubled children. The Hubbards and the Zimmerns, though badly matched, will continue with their "successful" marriages.
Alison Lurie's novels are always brisk and entertaining, and their comic vision is never vexingly bleak; one can read her as one might read Jane Austen, with continual delight, grateful for the insights the genre can allow us. One misses in "Only Children" the amusing peripheral characters of "The War Between the Tates" and "The Nowhere City," Miss Lurie's most popular novels; and perhaps in limiting herself to a very small cast of characters, not all of them vividly delineated, the author has risked a certain uniformity of tone. One might question, too, whether the "love" about which the various characters talk is actually dramatized in the novel, or whether Honey and Bill and Celia and Dan have the depth, the resourcefulness of personality, that might make them suitable objects for another's love….
Alison Lurie's work is, however, triumphantly in the comic mode, and she knows its contours and idiosyncrasies and its meticulous pacing exceptionally well. "Only Children" is not so free-wheeling and inventive as "The War Between the Tates," but it is a highly satisfactory achievement…. (p. 27)
Joyce Carol Oates, "Honey and Bill and Dan and Celia," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 22, 1979, pp. 7, 27.
The love-war continues for Alison Lurie but in [Only Children] she has introduced a referee…. For the title has a double meaning: the actual children in the story are "only children" in the sense of being without siblings; but their parents are "only children" in that they are just immature….
It's all a question of sexual relations and the nature of love. Only Children is an easily read, fast moving, summer weekend sort of novel; yet the underlying "message" is tough….
No one complains exactly about anyone else, but in each case one spouse is "crazy about" his or her marriage partner, and Lurie makes it clear that "crazy" is to be taken quite literally….
The novel begins and ends with Mary Ann's private imaginings, and the little girls' games, conversations and reveries punctuate their elders' throughout. Sometimes this is wonderfully successful, as when an interminable, unscripted play put on by the girls counterpoints a crisis in their parents' affairs. But Lurie herself is irretrievably grown-up; she has too collected and conscious an intelligence, I think, to "be," or be in, a child for very long, even though in describing their behavior, which is something else, she is faultless….
But this is a powerful novel. Imaginary friends or real people, her characters live on in the mind. And the clear intellectual framework is effectively embedded in a totally realized world of food and...
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[Only Children] is dull because it is about dull people…. The dull people are kept under tight rein to serve Lurie's thematic ends, which, in tune with the holiday setting, are about American childishness and American materialism….
Bill is stingy, dull, unimaginative, and responsible. Dan is generous, lively, fanciful, and self-indulgent; another sensual Jew of large physical dimensions…. One wonders, alas, if the old stereotypes have given way to a new one, more flattering, I suppose, but quite as threatening as what it replaces.
The women, too, are clichés….
The adults talk a lot about proper conduct, but being inwardly, as the title implies, still only children, they play games with each other. Their three children, who are, in another sense, only children, and very isolated only children at that, try to work their way through the verbal hypocrisies of their parents, and learn as they watch. (p. 96)
Only Children evokes America in the 1930's as a sophomoric country, whose adultery, even, is unripe, unconsummated, a dream of puberty, like its cars, its politics, its sporadic playing at mummy and daddy. The mild shenanigans of Lurie's weekend never become interesting; and though she flirts with the irony of sexual games being played against a backdrop of fading depression and looming war, the flirtation never gets more serious than the games themselves. The implications, not only of wars and depressions, but of neglected children and frivolous adults, are far too large to fit inside the covers of so slight a book. (p. 97)
Edith Milton, "Looking Backward: 'Only Children'," in The Yale Review (© 1979 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. LXIX, No. 1, October, 1979, pp. 96-7.