In addition to writing fiction, Alison Lurie has distinguished herself in two other areas, children’s literature and the semiotics of dress, and her novels reflect both concerns as well. Her interest in children’s literature is reflected in Only Children, in which two little girls pose their fantasies against the shocking reality exposed to them by their parents, and in Foreign Affairs, in which one of the two central characters, Vinnie Miner, spends her sabbatical in England collecting playground rhymes. Real children’s rhymes, Lurie observes, are surprisingly subversive, not like the “safe” literature written for children by adults. She develops this insight in the nonfiction work Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children’s Literature (1990). Lurie’s fascination with the semiotics of clothing, which she addresses in The Language of Clothes (1981), is reflected frequently in the novels, where she pursues the relationship between clothing and personal identity. An especially provocative example can be found in Imaginary Friends, where Roger Zimmern, forced by a strange religious group to abandon his normal academic dress in favor of cheap suits, loses his sense of identity.
Two literary memoirs by Lurie, published thirty-five years apart, deserve mention. The writing of the first in 1966, the memoir of a friend, an ill-fated young poet-playwright, proved life-changing. In 2001, Lurie published Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson. She had befriended the two poets while at Amherst College during a lonely time in her life as a faculty wife. Merrill and Jackson were companions whose mercurial life together Lurie traces with compassion throughout.