Alison Lurie Lurie, Alison (Vol. 175) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Alison Lurie 1926-

American novelist, editor, children's writer, memoirist, short story writer, essayist, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Lurie's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 5, 18, and 39.

Distinguished for her sophisticated comedies of manners and academic satires, Lurie has earned both popular and critical acclaim for her best-selling novels, such as The War between the Tates (1974), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Foreign Affairs (1984), The Truth about Lorin Jones (1988), and The Last Resort (1998). Set in closed communities, typically prestigious eastern colleges and artist enclaves, Lurie's novels repeatedly utilize the themes of adultery and sexuality as means for allowing her characters, especially her female characters, to confront their self-depictions and grow into a greater awareness of themselves and others. Her prose attempts to deconstruct the pretensions and false pride of her characters—at times unmercifully—and works to expose the ways in which cultural ideas and institutions can become obstacles to rewarding lives. Lurie is also a noted scholar of children's literature and has written and edited several volumes of juvenilia, criticism, and fairy tales including Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children's Literature (1990) and Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter (2002).

Biographical Information

Born in Chicago and raised in New York City and Westchester County, New York, Lurie is the eldest of two daughters born to Harry and Bernice Lurie. Lurie's father, a sociology professor, was born in Latvia and later became the executive director of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds. Lurie's mother was an accomplished journalist with the Detroit Free Press before her marriage, a career she left to devote herself to her family. Lurie attended a private elementary school and finished high school at a progressive preparatory school in Connecticut. She attended Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, graduating in 1947 with a bachelor of arts in literature and history. Lurie began writing in elementary school and continued composing poems, stories, and reviews throughout her schooling. After leaving Radcliffe, she took an editorial assistant position at Oxford University Press in New York. In 1948 she married Jonathan Peale Bishop, with whom she had three sons. While her husband pursued his doctoral work at Harvard University, Lurie concentrated on her writing career and raising her family. During these years, Lurie became a founding member of the Poets' Theater at Harvard. The group, established in 1950, set out to revive poetic drama and included such notable writers and artists as James Merrill, Donald Hall, Frank O'Hara, Richard Wilbur, Kenneth Koch, and Edward Gorey, among others. After receiving rejection slips for numerous short stories and two novels, Lurie stopped writing for a period but resumed her work in earnest to write a memoir of her friend, V. R. Lang—the poet, playwright, and actress—who died of cancer in 1956. Friends of Lurie privately printed the work, V. R. Lang: A Memoir (1959), which was later included as the introduction to V. R. Lang: Poems and Plays (1975). Lurie's first novel, Love and Friendship, was published in 1962. A series of fellowships from the Yaddo Foundation in 1963, 1964, and 1966 helped support her work on her subsequent novels, The Nowhere City (1965) and Imaginary Friends (1967). Lurie's experiences at the well-known Saratoga Springs retreat for writers, artists, and composers provided the inspiration for her fourth novel Real People (1969). In 1968 she began teaching part-time in the English Department at Cornell University, becoming an adjunct associate professor in 1973 and a professor of English in 1979. During the late 1970s, Lurie focused on her academic work in the area of folklore and children's literature, leading to the publication of several children's works, including The Heavenly Zoo: Legends and Tales of the Stars (1979), Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folk Tales (1980), and Fabulous Beasts (1981). Lurie's seventh novel, Foreign Affairs, won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1985 and was nominated for the American Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In addition to these honors, Lurie received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1978 and the Prix Femina Etranger in 1989. Lurie separated from Bishop in 1975 and later married novelist Edward Hower. In 1989 she was named as the Fredric J. Whiton Professor of American Literature at Cornell.

Major Works

With her first novel, Love and Friendship, Lurie established a satiric style and academic milieu that she would return to repeatedly in subsequent novels. Love and Friendship—its title a reference to an early novel written by nineteenth-century author Jane Austen—relates the story of a disintegrating marriage between a woman and her husband, an English professor at a small, prestigious eastern college. Reminiscent of Austen's novels, Lurie adopts a comedy of manners style to explore such issues as relations between the sexes, female awakening, and the intellectual and personal pretenses in cloistered academic communities. Imaginary Friends examines how fantasy and reality can become blurred, especially when sexuality is involved, and how academic objectivity can be used to foster self-delusion. The novel exposes the arrogance of social science research methods and, in particular, the simplistic beliefs about human relationships that underlie such sociological empiricism. Real People, based on Lurie's experiences at Saratoga Springs, employs the form of a journal to investigate the relationship between an artist and the world around her. The plot follows a writer named Janet Belle Smith during her week-long stay at Illyria, a decadent artists' retreat. Lurie returned to her familiar fictional elements—academic settings, adultery, and marital breakdown—in The War between the Tates, which dissects the lives, relationships, presumptions, and self-deceptions of a married couple. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the novel also contains an explicit political component, embodied in the character of Brian Tate, a professor of political science who is having an affair with a social psychology graduate student. Brian accidentally impregnates the student, causing his wife, Erica, to rebel and briefly experiment with sex, drugs, and Eastern philosophy.

Lurie departed from her trademark academic settings in Only Children (1979), a novel set during the Great Depression and told from the viewpoint of two eight-year-old girls. The novel incorporates Lurie's interest in children's literature and gender discrimination while continuing several of the themes from The War between the Tates, most notably male-female and intergenerational conflicts. Through this child's-eye perspective, Lurie reveals the immaturity of adult behavior and the limitations imposed on adult women. Lurie returned to scholarly protagonists in Foreign Affairs, which revolves around the troubled lives of two academics—a middle-aged female scholar of children's literature and a male junior professor of eighteenth-century literature—who are both on research sabbaticals in London. A comedy of manners that is also reminiscent of the Jamesian-style “international novel,” Foreign Affairs examines the self-deceptions that inhibit the academics' respective relationships and the false assumptions about foreign culture that become part of their illusions. In The Truth about Lorin Jones, Lurie again explores the uncertain boundaries between reality and fantasy, this time through the experiences of a biographer, Laurie Zimmern, who is writing a book about a famous painter named Lorin Jones. While conducting research, Zimmern continually encounters her own faulty preconceptions about Jones, the people in Jones's life, and herself. This new sense of awareness forces her to reexamine the attitudes and ideals that have been shaping her life. Set in Key West, The Last Resort involves an eminent naturalist, Wilkie Walker, and his wife, Jenny, as they travel to Florida with vastly different agendas. Jenny hopes the vacation will restore her husband's warmth, while Wilkie—convinced that he has cancer—has come to kill himself in the ocean. The novel takes a darkly comic turn as Wilkie haphazardly bungles his suicide attempts while Jenny explores a lesbian love affair and becomes friends with some of the island's more colorful denizens. Women and Ghosts (1994), Lurie's only collection of short fiction, features nine stories that follow women haunted by figments of their own psyches. In “Ilse's House,” a woman encounters the ghost of her fiancé's ex-wife, while “In the Shadow” focuses on a young foreign service officer whose love life is interrupted by the spirit of a former lover. “The Double Poet” centers around a writer who is tormented by a mysterious doppelgänger who begins taking her place at literary events.

In addition to her fiction, Lurie has published several analytical works, including The Language of Clothes (1981), a study of clothing as a mode of social communication, and Don't Tell the Grown-Ups, a volume of critical writings on children's literature in which she examines subversive elements of traditional stories such as Little Women, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Watership Down, and Harriet the Spy. She continued her scholarly reexamination of juvenile fiction with Boys and Girls Forever, which discusses the inspiration behind and the portrayal of gender roles in many notable children's works. Lurie has also edited The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales (1993), a collection of folklore and children's stories spanning from 1839 to 1989. In 2001 Lurie published Familiar Spirits, an affectionate though not uncritical memoir of her friends James Merrill, the acclaimed American poet who died of AIDS in 1995, and his long-time partner, David Jackson.

Critical Reception

Frequently compared to Jane Austen by critics, Lurie has attracted considerable praise for her incisive, satirical observations of social conventions and relationships among the educated classes. Many reviewers have concurred that The War between the Tates and Foreign Affairs represent the strongest examples of Lurie's talent in constructing modern comedies of manners. Academics have frequently lauded Lurie's insights into contemporary culture, mores, and politics, while additionally commending her eye for detail, sharp wit, and sense of irony. Several critics, however, have found Lurie's often amused detachment unduly cold and harsh, with some claiming that her satire at its most extreme tends to project an indifferent and contemptuous attitude toward her characters. Others have argued that Lurie's prose style is overly controlled, noting that her authorial dominance over characters and plot can make suspension of disbelief difficult. Moreover, some reviewers have perceived an over-reliance on infidelity and sexual intrigue as melodramatic plot devices in her work. While popular press critics have been favorably disposed towards Lurie's fiction, considering her to be a brilliant satirist and keen observer of human nature, many scholars have asserted that Lurie's importance as a serious writer has been diminished by her mainstream status as an entertaining author of light, comic novels. Despite such reservations, Lurie has been consistently praised for her intelligent plots and skillful pacing of both comedy and suspense in her fiction. Lurie has also earned critical esteem for her scholarly and editorial contributions to the study of children's literature, though some have questioned her inclusion criteria for The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales. In the Publishers Weekly review of Boys and Girls Forever, the critic has commented that Lurie's “essays are consistently entertaining, enlightening and erudite, and Lurie's insights into a host of classic titles … bring clarity to an always-evolving form.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

V. R. Lang: A Memoir (memoir) 1959; reprinted in V. R. Lang: Poems and Plays. With a Memoir by Alison Lurie, 1975

Love and Friendship (novel) 1962

The Nowhere City (novel) 1965

Imaginary Friends (novel) 1967

Real People (novel) 1969

The War between the Tates (novel) 1974

The Heavenly Zoo: Legends and Tales of the Stars [illustrations by Monika Beisner] (juvenilia) 1979

Only Children (novel) 1979

Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folk Tales [illustrations by Margot Tomes] (juvenilia) 1980


(The entire section is 161 words.)

Sara Maitland (review date 8 July 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Maitland, Sara. “Polly's Choice.” New Statesman and Society 84, no. 1331 (8 July 1988): 39-40.

[In the following review, Maitland compares Lurie's fiction to the work of Jane Austen but faults The Truth about Lorin Jones, asserting that the book has a weak ending.]

Alison Lurie is a truly clever writer: sharp eyed and eared for the details of life about her, astringent, witty, and with a stylish control which allows her to use wit rather than be used by it. One very seldom feels that she sacrifices either truth or plot for the cheap joke and this is rare. I would not like to meet her, though; I would feel, as I would with Jane Austen (though Austen...

(The entire section is 674 words.)

Austin MacCurtain (review date 8-14 July 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: MacCurtain, Austin. “What We Are and May Be.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4449 (8-14 July 1988): 259.

[In the following review, MacCurtain discusses the plot and characters in The Truth about Lorin Jones, calling the novel “entertaining.”]

The epigraph to The Truth about Lorin Jones serves notice that the reader had best be cautious about Alison Lurie's intentions. It is a riddling quotation from a speech of the distracted Ophelia: “They say the owl was a baker's daughter. Lord! We know what we are, but we know not what we may be.” We might remember, too, that the character who described Ophelia's condition said that her hearers...

(The entire section is 988 words.)

Francis King (review date 16 July 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: King, Francis. “Painters and Self-Portraits.” Spectator 261, no. 8349 (16 July 1988): 31-2.

[In the following review, King analyzes the plot and style of The Truth about Lorin Jones, claiming the book makes interesting points about the nature of biography.]

Every biographer—Michael Holroyd with Strachey and John, Victoria Glendinning with Victoria Sackville-West and Rebecca West, even (dare one say it?) Ariana Stassinopoulos Huffington with Callas and Picasso—is bound, willy-nilly, to fall victim to some degree of self-identification, however unconscious, with his or her subject. It is this self-identification, carried to remarkable extremes,...

(The entire section is 1074 words.)

Anthony Thwaite (review date 1 September 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thwaite, Anthony. “Ruined by Men.” London Review of Books 10, no. 15 (1 September 1988): 24-6.

[In the following excerpt, Thwaite praises Lurie's astute commentary in The Truth about Lorin Jones on the craft of writing a biography.]

Alison Lurie's new novel is, among other things, an anthology of several characters from her earlier novels. Readers unfamiliar with these books need not be apprehensive, however: The Truth about Lorin Jones is perfectly self-contained. Indeed, that self-contained quality helps to account for the powerful, painful oppressiveness of the book, as Polly Alter becomes more and more deeply enmeshed in her quest for the...

(The entire section is 1055 words.)

Barbara A. Bannon (review date 6 December 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bannon, Barbara A. “Truth Telling.” Commonweal 115, no. 122 (6 December 1988): 690.

[In the following review, Bannon contends that The Truth about Lorin Jones is humorous, sly, and satirical but asserts that it does not match her best work.]

One thing is certain about Alison Lurie's novels. They always entertain. Although The Truth about Lorin Jones is not up to the high standards set by Lurie herself in The War between the Tates and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Foreign Affairs, it is quirky, zesty, and funny enough to give enjoyment and amusement to its readers, most of whom will undoubtedly be women.

It is also...

(The entire section is 669 words.)

John Stark (essay date February 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stark, John. “Alison Lurie's Career.” Hollins Critic 26, no. 1 (February 1989): 1-7.

[In the following essay, Stark provides an overview of Lurie's novels from Love and Friendship to The Truth about Lorin Jones, drawing attention to continuities and consistencies in the themes, settings, and characters of her fiction.]

American fiction would be far richer but for the truncated careers of many of its creators. Early spectacular success exacerbated a few writers' psychological problems. Others sustained development only briefly and either stopped producing or repeatedly wrote essentially the same work. Still others, more adventurous, did...

(The entire section is 3692 words.)

Emily Toth (review date February 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Toth, Emily. “Questioning the Quest.” Women's Review of Books 6, no. 1 (February 1989): 11.

[In the following excerpt, Toth discusses the plot of The Truth about Lorin Jones, noting the struggles of protagonist Polly Alter to write a biography of Lorin Jones—struggles similar to Toth's own in writing her biography of Kate Chopin.]

No feminist biographer ever starts out from disinterested, “scholarly” motives (if such motives even exist—which I doubt). Usually, we start out wanting to reclaim a sister. We want our subject to be our foremother and our friend, and occasionally even our reader-adviser. Certainly we want a mentor, or at least a...

(The entire section is 767 words.)

Dean Flower (review date spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Flower, Dean. “Barbaric Yawps and Breathing Lessons.” Hudson Review 42, no. 1 (spring 1989): 133-40.

[In the following excerpt, Flower notes the difficulties inherent in capturing a life in biography and discusses Lurie's treatment of this theme in The Truth about Lorin Jones.]

Alison Lurie listens to another kind of barbaric yawp altogether, the language of predatory academics, enlightened feminists, complacent male chauvinists, suave psychotherapists, smug art critics, and affluent New York dealers. Her latest novel [The Truth about Lorin Jones] might be understood as a study of these competing jargons. Polly Alter, recently divorced at...

(The entire section is 427 words.)

Edith Milton (review date spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Milton, Edith. “The Year in Fiction: 1988.” Massachusetts Review 30, no. 1 (spring 1989): 102-21.

[In the following excerpt, Milton asserts that Lurie employs clever technique in The Truth about Lorin Jones by writing a novel about writing but finds shortcomings in the novel's narrow focus and feminist concerns.]

In any review of the year's fiction what the reviewer thinks about the books he chooses is certainly less important than what books he chooses to think about. I arbitrarily excluded short stories and translations from this piece—on the grounds that these would make a sufficiently complicated task impossible. But once my focus was narrowed...

(The entire section is 1266 words.)

Katharine M. Rogers (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rogers, Katharine M. “Alison Lurie: The Uses of Adultery.” In American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, pp. 115-28. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989.

[In the following essay, Rogers examines Lurie's dissection of traditional marital inequities and her presentation of sexual infidelity as a catalyst for newfound self-awareness and independence among the passive, self-sacrificing women characters of her novels.]

By entitling her first novel Love and Friendship, Alison Lurie invited comparison with an author whom she resembles in her area of interest, in her disenchanted view of human...

(The entire section is 5715 words.)

Sonja Bolle (review date 11 March 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bolle, Sonja. Review of Don't Tell the Grown-Ups, by Alison Lurie. Los Angeles Times Book Review (11 March 1990): 6.

[In the following review, Bolle praises Don't Tell the Grown-Ups for Lurie's interesting opposition to feminists who dismiss fairy tales as patronizing to women.]

“There exists in our world an unusual, partly savage tribe, ancient and widely distributed, yet, until recently little studied by anthropologists or historians. All of us were at one time members of this tribe; we knew its customs, manners and rituals, its folklore and sacred texts. I refer, of course, to children,” writes novelist and English professor Alison Lurie in...

(The entire section is 545 words.)

Joseph E. Illick (review date 16 April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Illick, Joseph E. “Telling Another Fairy Tale.” New Leader 73, no. 6 (16 April 1990): 20-1.

[In the following review, Illick finds shortcomings in Lurie's generalized view of children's literature and lack of historical perspective in Don't Tell the Grown-Ups.]

The most intriguing book on children's literature is Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment (1976). Arguing that an acquaintanceship with literature can give meaning to children's lives—not just any literature, not myths of superhuman feats or moralistic fables, but fairy tales that capture human development in symbolic terms—Bettelheim conveys the message evident throughout his...

(The entire section is 820 words.)

Janet Adam Smith (review date 26 April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Smith, Janet Adam. “Unchildish Activities.” New York Review of Books 37, no. 7 (26 April 1990): 45.

[In the following review, Smith offers a positive assessment of Don't Tell the Grown-Ups, calling the work a “witty and enlightening survey.”]

“Somebody's been putting ideas into your head”—there, down the ages, is the voice of authority, in the form of parent, nanny, teacher, when faced with questions that threaten received ideas and their privilege of “Allow me to know best.” That they have been busily putting ideas into children's heads—ideas of behavior, morality, and the status quo—is quite another story. E. Nesbit hit off the...

(The entire section is 1669 words.)

Nicci Gerrard (review date 25 May 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gerrard, Nicci. “Alison in Wonderland.” New Statesman and Society 86, no. 1428 (25 May 1990): 32-3.

[In the following review, Gerrard commends Lurie's biographical sketches of various children's writers in Don't Tell the Grown-Ups but faults Lurie's overly-determined, excessively narrow critical approach and analysis.]

“‘There's glory for you!’ ‘I don't know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said. ‘I meant, “there's a nice knock-down argument for you!”’ ‘But glory doesn't mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected. ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what...

(The entire section is 1101 words.)

Juliet Townsend (review date 16 June 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Townsend, Juliet. “The Pure Pleasure of Being Naughty.” Spectator 264, no. 8449 (16 June 1990): 30-1.

[In the following review, Townsend argues that Lurie's linking theme of “subversive children's literature” in Don't Tell the Grown-Ups is neither coherent nor convincing.]

It is E. Nesbit who points out that, in order to succeed as a writer for children it is not necessary to have children of one's own, nor even to know any children. The one essential is to retain a clear memory, unclouded by sentiment or nostalgia, of one's childhood; not just of events, but of feelings and thoughts and attitudes. Very few people have this power of recall, which...

(The entire section is 878 words.)

Susie Harries (review date 7 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Harries, Susie. “Performance Fashion.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4662 (7 August 1992): 10.

[In the following excerpt, Harries compliments The Language of Clothes, arguing that Lurie's statements regarding clothing and dress are witty and authoritative.]

“Clothes hurt us”, writes Quentin Bell, “in a pecuniary, a physical, an aesthetic and frequently a moral sense; they are (very often) expensive, unhealthy, ugly and immodest.” From this perspective, the pursuit of fashion is an irrational activity—and an irresistible subject for analysis. Why do we dress as we do? …

Laying bare the subtext of popular culture has been...

(The entire section is 583 words.)

Richard Hauer Costa (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Costa, Richard Hauer. “Alison Lurie and the Critics.” In Alison Lurie, pp. 75-83. New York, NY: Twayne, 1992.

[In the following essay, Costa provides an overview of critical response to Lurie's work and the formation of her literary reputation, particularly as established in discussion of her two most prominently reviewed and debated novels, The War between the Tates and Foreign Affairs.]


Reviewers, by and large, have treated Alison Lurie well but superficially, as a sampling of dust-jacket endorsements reflects: poet James Merrill called her “the wisest woman in America”; Truman Capote believed The...

(The entire section is 3245 words.)

Fred Chappell (review date 9 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Chappell, Fred. “Not for Children Only.” Washington Post Book World (9 May 1993): 2.

[In the following review, Chappell offers praise for The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales, lauding Lurie's diverse selections of material.]

In such an anthology as Alison Lurie's The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales we should expect to find, as we do, familiar classics like George MacDonald's “The Light Princess,” shining discoveries like Joan Aiken's “The Man Who Had Seen the Rope Trick,” and stories whose classification as fairy tale is debatable—like Ursula LeGuin's “The Wife's Story.” Perhaps also we should be disappointed not to find a...

(The entire section is 892 words.)

Janet Barron (review date 28 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Barron, Janet. “Frogspawn.” New Statesman and Society 6, no. 254 (28 May 1993): 40-1.

[In the following review, Barron faults the selection of stories in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales and criticizes the use of the word “modern” in the title of the anthology.]

The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales is fey and sometimes feisty, but definitely a volume aimed at adults and not young children. Some of these stories would satisfy kids as bedtime beguilement, but there is an undertone of a peculiarly disturbing quality. “Modern fairy tales” is something of a misnomer. The first story in the book was written in 1839, and of the 40...

(The entire section is 639 words.)

John Bayley (review date 22 July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bayley, John. “Stand the Baby on Its Head.” London Review of Books 15, no. 14 (22 July 1993): 19-20.

[In the following excerpt, Bayley praises the selection of stories in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales.]

What is the point of fairy tales? Morals, politics, economics? Yes, but that gets us nowhere. Poetry, fantasy, romance? Why not archness, whimsy, sentiment? The poetical fairy tale, even a wry modern one like Thurber's ‘The Unicorn in the Garden’, is apt to be soft and-sticky. The best are startling and mysterious but also commonplace. Before she died Angela Carter made a few notes for what was to be the introduction to her second collection of...

(The entire section is 1835 words.)

Marina Warner (review date 30 July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Warner, Marina. “The Flavour of Utopia.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4713 (30 July 1993): 7.

[In the following review, Warner finds Lurie's selections in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales somewhat arbitrary due to the volume's lack of unifying linguistic, literary, or historical context.]

Children play adult games (pretending to be the Mafia in Sicily, Jack the Ripper in London). Fairy-tales, as a branch of literature, frequently represent the reverse: grown-ups pretending childlikeness in order to make things better. Novalis wrote in his notebooks, “a child is good deal cleverer and wiser than an adult—but the child must be an ironic...

(The entire section is 1159 words.)

Maria Tatar (review date 15 November 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tatar, Maria. “Disobedience.” New Republic 209, no. 20 (15 November 1993): 39-41.

[In the following review, Tatar discusses the diversity and “elasticity” of the fairy-tale genre and praises many of Lurie's choices for inclusion in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales.]

Some years back Roald Dahl pointed out that adults are unyielding in their efforts to civilize “this thing that when it is born is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all.” The urge to enlighten, educate and regulate—to reduce the chances for moments of successful truancy—has inscribed itself with particular intensity on the literature we produce and read to children....

(The entire section is 2688 words.)

Alex Clark (review date 17 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Clark, Alex. “Spectres and Sibyls.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4759 (17 June 1994): 23.

[In the following review, Clark evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of several stories within Women and Ghosts, asserting that Lurie's writing displays wit, irony, and a deft touch.]

Alison Lurie has for many years continued to create quietly explosive comedies revolving around the foibles of upper-middle-class Americans, particularly academics or those in academic communities. Her writing transforms itself through its ability at once to satirize and sympathize, urging her readers towards careful interpretations of complex human behaviour. In this...

(The entire section is 887 words.)

Kathryn Hughes (review date 17 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hughes, Kathryn. “Good Spirits.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 307 (17 June 1994): 38-9.

[In the following review, Hughes offers praise for the first and last stories in Women and Ghosts but laments the mixed quality of the rest of the collection.]

It is six years since Alison Lurie's last novel, The Truth about Lorin Jones. Since then she has been attending to her other life as professor of literature at Cornell. Women and Ghosts marks her welcome, though slight, return to fiction.

Here are nine short stories about women who are surprised, pestered but not exactly scared by a rag-tag collection of thoroughly modern...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

D. J. Taylor (review date 18 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Taylor, D. J. “Beginning with Revelations.” Spectator 272, no. 8658 (18 June 1994): 34.

[In the following review, Taylor faults Women and Ghosts, contending that the collection suffers from over-explication and laborious detail rather than employing understatement and subtlety.]

What makes a good ghost story? Apart from their scholarly background, which allows antiquarian heroes to delve into matters best left unturned, the classic supernatural tales of M. R. James and Sheridan Le Fanu (whom James acknowledged as an influence) tend to follow a distinctive narrative line. A generally innocuous preamble, often involving the arrival of a stranger in an...

(The entire section is 691 words.)

Judie Newman (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Newman, Judie. “Paleface into Redskin: Cultural Transformations in Alison Lurie's Foreign Affairs.” In Forked Tongues? Comparing Twentieth-Century British and American Literature, edited by Ann Massa and Alistair Stead, pp. 188-205. London and New York: Longman, 1994.

[In the following essay, Newman examines the use of intertextual literary themes and cultural slippages in Foreign Affairs, contending that, rather than reinforcing the fictional stereotypes of Henry James, Frances Hodges Burnett, or John Gay, Lurie subverts traditional clashes between Americans and Europeans and nature and culture to reveal the generative possibilities inherent in such interacting...

(The entire section is 8149 words.)

John Banville (review date 2 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Banville, John. “The Un-Heimlich Maneuver.” New York Review of Books 42, no. 2 (2 February 1995): 25-7.

[In the following excerpt, Banville offers a mixed assessment of Women and Ghosts, which he finds characteristically well-written despite its uneven weight and interest.]

The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species.

—Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Why do we find ghost stories more pleasurable than frightening? Perhaps because they lull us into a state of coziness by turning our worst fears into the stuff of entertainment. In the ghost...

(The entire section is 878 words.)

Margaret Hallissy (review date spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hallissy, Margaret. Review of The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales, edited by Alison Lurie. Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 2 (spring 1995): 267-68.

[In the following review, Hallissy asserts that the appeal of the selections in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales lies in the stories' variations on established, traditional fairy-tale themes and elements.]

Like the Bible and Arthuriana, fairy tales stimulate creativity in ways that other literature does not; nobody rewrites Hamlet, but Job and Lancelot and Cinderella continually reappear in modern dress. Whereas the original fairy tales can be read on various levels by children and...

(The entire section is 528 words.)

Gabriele Annan (review date 22 May 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “A Grudge against Men.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4964 (22 May 1998): 8.

[In the following review, Annan finds shortcomings in The Last Resort's treatment of feminism and love.]

Alison Lurie's novels add up to an American Dance to the Music of Time, with the music modulating into a minor feminist key. As in Anthony Powell's sequence, characters from the earlier novels turn up again in later ones. But this is a smaller world. Everyone in it—except for deliberately dissonant outsiders—is an artist, writer, academic, or married to one. They are anchored either in New York or in East Coast Universities called Corinth or...

(The entire section is 1986 words.)

Amanda Craig (review date 22 May 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Craig, Amanda. “A Jane for Our Age.” New Statesman 127, no. 4386 (22 May 1998): 56-7.

[In the following review, Craig argues that The Last Resort is a “masterpiece,” contending that Lurie writes with great wit and attention to detail.]

The Last Resort refers to both a location and an action. Wilkie Walker, an eminent naturalist, has come to Key West, an exotic seaside resort at the far end of Florida, to commit suicide. His reason for doing so is that he suspects he has colonic cancer, and does not wish his wife Jenny to know he is a dying man.

If this were Tolstoy or Mann, we would be pretty sure of the outcome: the...

(The entire section is 704 words.)

Anita Brookner (review date 13 June 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “Death in the Sun Postponed.” Spectator 280, no. 8862 (13 June 1998): 40.

[In the following review, Brookner concludes that The Last Resort will satisfy Lurie's admirers but is lacking in seriousness and edge.]

Into the stagy, semi-tropical setting of Key West—frangipani, hibiscus, bougainvillea, mosquito nets—come two refugees from the icy campus of Convers College, many miles to the north in New England. They are a respectable married couple, Wilkie Walker, famous naturalist and ecologist, heroic populariser and signer of books, and his submissive wife Jenny who does most of his research and all of his secretarial work. He is...

(The entire section is 966 words.)

Hilary Mantel (review date 5 November 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mantel, Hilary. “Escape Artists.” New York Review of Books 45, no. 17 (5 November 1998): 23-4, 26.

[In the following excerpt, Mantel lauds The Last Resort but cites shortcomings in the novel's supporting cast and narrative structure.]

It is dangerous to stray outside New England, to places where the chill predictabilities of winter are overlapped by the warm ocean currents of self-indulgence and self-deceit: to places where the bracing necessities of shoveling snow are replaced by the velvet and slippery deceptions of bodily warmth. Harry DeKroll entertains mild regrets for Key West in the days when it offered “the great escape,” for days when...

(The entire section is 1839 words.)

Gerda Oldham (review date winter 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Oldham, Gerda. Review of The Last Resort, by Alison Lurie. Antioch Review 57, no. 1 (winter 1999): 109-10.

[In the following review, Oldham provides an overview of the plot and characters of The Last Resort.]

Key West, the “last resort” of the novel [The Last Resort], is the place where characters in Lurie's tale meet; some of them are year-round residents like Jacko, a gardener who has just learned that he is HIV-positive, Molly Hopkins, who did covers for the New Yorker in the good old days, and Lee Weiss, an ex-psychologist who now runs a B. & B. for women. “Having been a therapist came in useful, Lee said, when neighbors or...

(The entire section is 339 words.)

Linda Simon (review date February 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Simon, Linda. “Something That Is Gone.” World and I 14, no. 2 (February 1999): 285.

[In the following review, Simon comments that Lurie displays her talents as an astute observer of quirky, trendy, contemporary life in The Last Resort.]

Since 1962, when she published her first novel, Love and Friendship, Alison Lurie has carved out a special literary territory: troubled marriages in academia, bewilderment among the intelligentsia. As Lurie sees it, being well read and articulate does not guard against bad, bumbling, or silly choices. Erudition does not grant immunity from the longings that beset a wider range of humanity: the desire to transgress the...

(The entire section is 1793 words.)

Judie Newman (essay date 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Newman, Judie. “Biographical Introduction.” In Alison Lurie: A Critical Study, pp. 4-27. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000.

[In the following essay, Newman provides an overview of Lurie's early life and education, her formative experiences with the Poets' Theatre, the origin of recurring themes and characters in her fiction, and the inadequacies of her critical appraisal.]

When Alison Lurie was first a student at Radcliffe, only one class in creative writing was available, taught by Robert Hillyer, a handsome minor poet whose manner struck Lurie as courtly, but curiously vague. (She did not suspect that he had a drinking problem.) For several weeks...

(The entire section is 9527 words.)

Jim Marks (review date 11 February 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Marks, Jim. “Uncommon Friends.” Washington Post Book World (11 February 2001): 12.

[In the following review, Marks praises Familiar Spirits, judging the book to be an honest and skillful memoir of poet James Merrill and his partner David Jackson.]

A faint whiff of vindication almost inevitably attends Familiar Spirits, Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Alison Lurie's totally absorbing memoir of her friends poet James Merrill and his longtime companion, writer and artist David Jackson. After all, she is at some pains to depict herself at the beginning of their friendship, in the mid-1950s, as an ordinary Amherst faculty wife struggling with the...

(The entire section is 847 words.)

Peter Davison (review date March 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Davison, Peter. Review of Familiar Spirits, by Alison Lurie. Atlantic Monthly 287, no. 3 (March 2001): 91-2.

[In the following review, Davison judges Familiar Spirits to be a powerful, moving, and “revealing tribute” to James Merrill and David Jackson.]

Sometimes an impressionistic memoir after the death of a literary figure can be definitive. The precision of a friend's intimate memory furnishes a connection to the senses, a stimulus to intuitive understanding, that a sedulous biographical assembly of documentary facts cannot match. In Familiar Spirits, Alison Lurie has written a revealing, happily far from objective tribute to and...

(The entire section is 332 words.)

Andrew Holleran (review date March 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Holleran, Andrew. “Shrimp Bisque and Yellow Underpants.” Lambda Book Report 9, no. 8 (March 2001): 21.

[In the following review, Holleran contends that Familiar Spirits is a revealing and honest recounting of Lurie's friendship with David Jackson and James Merrill.]

Most of us want the marriages of our friends to be perfect. This, of course, includes gay couples. We like to visit the happy pair, soak up their hospitality, use them as a point of stability in our lives. Yet we can never know the backstage scenes and bargains, the real dynamic behind the facade that married couples, especially when they happen to be our hosts, construct to charm us; and...

(The entire section is 1138 words.)

Alfred Corn (review date 20 April 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Corn, Alfred. “Merrill Table Talk.” Nation 273, no. 6 (20 April 2001): 28.

[In the following review, Corn offers a negative assessment of Familiar Spirits, noting that the memoir focuses too heavily on Lurie's personal gripes with James Merrill.]

Describing Alison Lurie's fiction as a decades-long debate with James Merrill explains a lot about her and, by extension, American culture in general. This memoir, [Familiar Spirits,] her second work of nonfiction, tells how they met in the mid-1950s, Lurie the bored, intelligent faculty wife of a dullish junior English professor at Amherst, Merrill a visiting teacher of poetry writing. Lurie says...

(The entire section is 2259 words.)

Adam Kirsch (review date 7 May 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kirsch, Adam. “All That Glitters.” New Republic 224 (7 May 2001): 40.

[In the following review, Kirsch compares James Merrill's Collected Poems to Lurie's Familiar Spirits.]

Proust's Madeleine has become the popular shorthand for his novel, the Atlantis of memory resurfacing after a single taste of a cookie dipped in tea. In fact, Proust's metaphor for remembering is much more arduous:

I place in position before my mind's eye the still recent taste of that first mouthful, and I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting place and attempts to rise, something that has been embedded like an...

(The entire section is 3944 words.)

Publisher's Weekly (review date 2 December 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter, by Alison Lurie. Publisher's Weekly 249, no. 48 (2 December 2002): 45.

[In the following review, the critic offers praise for Lurie's observations regarding children's literature in Boys and Girls Forever.]

A perceptive critic, Lurie (Don't Tell the Grown-Ups) has long been a close observer of children's literature. This welcome volume [Boys and Girls Forever] collects a number of her essays on the subject, most of which appeared in other versions in the New York Review of Books. As she wittily deconstructs the lives and works of authors as varied...

(The entire section is 305 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bobrick, Elizabeth. “Arrested Development.” Women's Review of Books 20, no. 7 (April 2003): 8-11.

Bobrick evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter.

Busch, Frederick. “What Shall We Tell the Children?” Los Angeles Times Book Review (3 October 1993): 1, 13.

Busch praises Lurie's intentions in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales, but regrets several omissions from the volume.

Givhan, Robin. “Making a Statement.” Washington Post Book World (16 April 2000): 8-9.


(The entire section is 377 words.)