Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Lurie is a gentle satirist. Her characters thrash around comically in the snares that they set for themselves, but though they are often weak, they are never vicious. They invite sympathy and do not provoke contempt. The Tates’ domestic situation is a commentary on American middle-class life: the middle-aged husband struggling as his dreams begin to fade and elude him; the wife coping with suddenly obnoxious teenagers, thinking about a part-time job, and watching her neck for wrinkles; the children who flame out in unpredictable ways under the pressures of adolescence. In the end, things turn out as well for the Tates and Wendy as most people could hope for, given life’s predicaments. Lurie seems to be saying that, although existence may not be a divine comedy, much of it is still comic, and, given any luck at all, it can be at least tolerable if people are considerate and understanding.

The Tates’ domestic drama is played out against a background of late 1960’s social changes. Of special concern to Brian and Erica is the encroachment of Glenview Heights, a raw, new subdivision, on the pastoral landscape they had sought out when they moved to Corinth. Ranch houses, featuring carports that “bulge with motorboats and skimobiles,” loom up to block off their sunsets, and Erica identifies the vulgarization of her surroundings with the distressing changes in Jeffrey and Matilda; “natural beauty and innocence are being swallowed up in ugly artificial growth, while she watches helplessly.”

The War Between the Tates ends with one of the classic defining scenes of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s—a peace march. As the procession advances down the main street of Collegetown, it attracts what Brian views as “freakish, violent, and socially disruptive elements”: a guerrilla theater group, a WHEN contingent, a Gay Power delegation, and a rabble of Maoists. The march culminates in a great brawl, choreographed to a score of police sirens. Everyone will rise the next day a little older, a little more scarred, and—with luck—a little wiser, and the ranch homes will continue displacing the oak trees. As Erica muses, “Everything and everyone is in flux now, confused, disintegrating in time and space.”