Born in Chicago and raised in White Plains, New York, Alison Lurie grew up as an avid reader, beginning with authors such as Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, and Jane Austen at the age of thirteen of fourteen. She received her A.B. degree from Radcliffe College in 1947. In 1948 she married Jonathan Peale Bishop; they were divorced in 1985. The mother of three sons, Lurie has worked as a librarian, ghost writer, critic, and essayist as well as novelist and author of children’s literature. She was awarded Yaddo Foundation and Guggenheim fellowships in the years 1963, 1964, and 1965, a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1967-1968, the American Academy of Arts and Letters award in 1978, and, for Foreign Affairs, a Pulitzer Prize in 1985. She joined the English faculty at Cornell University in 1968, where her husband was also a professor. She taught courses in narrative writing and children’s literature. Indeed, Lurie has published distinguished critical articles and reviews of children’s literature, including the studies Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups and Boys and Girls Forever, and edited a series of historical children’s books with Justin Schiller, as well as collecting and editing folktales, myths, and legends in Clever Gretchen, and Other Forgotten Folktales, Fabulous Beasts, and The Heavenly Zoo.
In 1981 Lurie published a semiotic study of fashion in The Language of Clothes, with chapter titles such as “Clothing as a Sign System,” “Youth and Age,” “Fashion and Status,” and “Sex and Fashion.” The chapters contain useful information and clever commentary. Lurie is best known in American letters, however, for her satirical novels, most of which feature American academics and their students, administrators, spouses, and friends amid sometimes comic, sometimes pathetic or ludicrous circumstances. From Love and Friendship to her later novels, Foreign Affairs, The Truth About Lorin Jones, and The Last Resort, Lurie reveals her incisive insight into the foibles of academics. Most of her novels feature characters who have been educated in prestigious Eastern colleges and who have lived highly privileged lives. They are generally witty, sophisticated, and usually, totally lacking in self-knowledge. Most of Lurie’s characters manage to insulate themselves from genuine experience; they hide behind a facade of intellectual life. They betray spouses, children, friends, and colleagues in the petty struggles of department politics or paltry, predictable adulteries. In Love and Friendship Lurie sharply probes the nature of love, sexuality, friendship, and various kinds of self-deceptions among the intellectuals and pseudointellectuals, faculty wives, and bohemians who inhabit a small, self-important New England campus. Lurie exposes pretension and fraud among these dessicated middle-class professionals, but she does so in a spirit of fun.
In The Nowhere City Lurie places an Eastern-educated couple in sunny California. Although the characters in The Nowhere City are not interesting enough to command the reader’s sympathy, Lurie delights in exposing and savaging the emptiness of the “nowhere city,” symbolized aptly and hilariously by a twenty-foot-high cement doughnut revolving atop a restaurant. Nobody escapes Lurie’s satire: Bohemians are exposed as hypocrites and liars, academics as self-deceivers, and Hollywood actors and actresses as neurotic. In a world drained of belief and stable values, Lurie’s characters have a hard time finding a firm place to stand. All too easily, they become emotional drifters. Even intellectual engagement...
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