The Last Resort

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In THE LAST RESORT, Alison Lurie, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of FOREIGN AFFAIRS (1985), looks at life in Key West, Florida, from the standpoints of characters facing a variety of crises. Barbie Mumpson, for example, travels to Key West trying to come to terms with a philandering husband whose political ambitions rest on her ability to forgive and forget. Barbie’s concerns, however, seem small when compared to others who spend their holidays in this tropical clime. Mollie Hopkins faces a limited life with arthritis. Perry Jackson learns he is HIV-positive, and Wilkie and Jenny Walker try to patch together a marriage that seems doomed to failure. Key West becomes a metaphor for the last opportunity, a paradise where anything and everything might be possible. In THE LAST RESORT, Lurie uses characters in varying stages of crisis to illustrate how people cope with and overcome confrontations with death or the realization of a life unfulfilled.

Alison Lurie’s talents lay in her success at depicting these characters realistically, but with warmth and concern; her portrait of Wilkie Walker, particularly, showcases her humanity in creating a cranky, sexist, and homophobic older man who is vilified and cherished with equal measure. Though lush with Key West descriptions and vivid with these portraitures of residents in crisis, Lurie sometimes fails to create believable plot shifts. Characters such as Jenny Walker, who changes from a devoted and patronized housewife into the free-spirited lover of another woman, seem to defy the realistic conventions which Lurie otherwise painstakingly maintains.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, June 1, 1998, p. 1725.

Library Journal. CXXIII, May 1, 1998, p. 138.

New Statesman. CXXVII, May 22, 1998, p. 56.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, November 5, 1998, p. 23.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, July 12, 1998, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, April 27, 1998, p. 41.

The Spectator. CCLXXX, June 13, 1998, p. 40.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 22, 1998, p. 8.

The Wall Street Journal. June 26, 1998, p. W9.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, July 19, 1998, p. 3.

The Last Resort

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Alison Lurie, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Foreign Affairs (1985), typically addresses social as well as interpersonal issues in her novels, often as they relate to the rarefied world of the academic. In The Last Resort (1998), however, Lurie’s emphasis shifts away from the confines of the university into the vacation paradise of Key West, Florida. Though most of the characters in The Last Resort arrive in Key West to escape the “cold climate” of their other lives, they also use the otherworldliness of the island to contemplate more serious concerns about aging and death, concerns that Lurie does not typically address in such an extended fashion. Because of this shift in emphasis, The Last Resort is a darker Lurie effort—and, because of her reliance on quick character change in the Key West setting, a not altogether successful one.

Lurie’s use of Key West as a fecund paradise, a place for characters to retreat to and marshal their strengths to change, serves the novel in an obvious way. Confused and crisis-stricken characters arrive seeking answers, then either leave having made a positive change or stay when they learn how to live with the despairing issue at hand. Characters roam the palm-lined streets, marvel at the bright orchids and thick, green undergrowth, and swim in pools and the ocean as methods of contemplating their problems. Though useful as a dramatic metaphor for the action of the novel, Lurie’s dependence on the island for this purpose seems contrived, particularly in how quickly some characters must change because of the average length of a vacation.

Lurie does, however, create memorable characters whose actions keep the narrative engaging. The novel opens in the fictional New England town of Convers as Wilkie Walker, famed naturalist and environmentalist, contemplates what he perceives as his imminent death. Recently retired from Convers College, Wilkie believes he is finished professionally as well as physically; he thinks he has colon cancer. Rather than waste away as a failure, Wilkie considers elaborate strategies for killing himself, contemplations that alter his usual demeanor, making him morose, despondent, and angry. Because he believes his much younger wife could not accept his sudden loss of power and vigor, he keeps his fears from her. As a result, he grows more distant and aloof, and she fears he has stopped loving her or has found some sort of fault with her intellectual powers. As Jenny searches for answers to Wilkie’s dark mood, she decides that a holiday to Key West might be one way to get him to open up and share his problems with her. He agrees to go with Jenny only because he thinks he will be able to commit suicide more effectively in this new environment.

Lurie systematically makes Wilkie an unlikable and pompous character. His homophobic and sexist attitudes grate on modern temperaments. Yet she also manages to keep him sympathetic because of his large yet increasingly pitiful ego, which convinces him to kill himself but finds excuses not to at every turn. Through Wilkie’s self-questioning character, Lurie forces readers to find remnants of their own frailties. Because of his brush with death, Wilkie changes from a man in control of everything and everyone to someone who recognizes how much in common he has with the many animals he has fought to keep from extinction.

Yet Wilkie’s ego keeps him from noticing the distancing of his wife, whose entire life has revolved around serving his physical, emotional, and intellectual needs. Other characters in the novel frequently describe Jenny as a “Victorian wife,” and until she arrives in Key West, she has few interests outside serving her husband. There, Jenny’s pain and anguish over her perceived failures as a wife open her eyes to possibilities outside her rather rigid marriage. Because of Wilkie’s preoccupation with himself, Jenny can step out of the marriage and find some element of happiness in the arms of Lee Weiss, the lesbian owner of a local bed-and-breakfast. Lurie, however, fails to make Jenny’s sudden change believable. Constantly referred to as ethereal and pale, Jenny threatens to drift out of the text. Even when passionate, she seems inclined to do whatever someone else tells her to do. This type of women seems unlikely to suddenly realize she has always liked women....

(The entire section is 1791 words.)