Alison Lurie Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In what ways does Alison Lurie make the university campus a microcosm for American society?

Compare the treatment of feminism in two Lurie novels.

How does Lurie’s children’s fiction reflect the themes of her adult novels?

How are Lurie’s novels comedies of manners in the style of Jane Austen?

Compare the views of marriage in two Lurie novels.

In The Nowhere City, how does Lurie’s vision of California differ from her view of the eastern United States in her other novels?

How are Imaginary Friends and Henry James’s The Bostonians similar and different?

How is The War Between the Tates a portrait of the American political turmoil of the 1960’s and 1970’s?

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Alison Lurie’s fiction has received much praise from critics, and her work has been very popular with the broader reading public. Her first novel, Love and Friendship, appeared in 1962 and was followed by several prestigious grants and fellowships: Yaddo Foundation Fellowships in 1963, 1964, and 1966; a Guggenheim grant in 1965-1966; a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1967-1968; and a New York State Cultural Council Foundation grant in 1972-1973. The War Between the Tates in 1974 brought Lurie a popular audience and more critical acclaim. An American Academy of Arts and Letters award followed in 1978, and for Foreign Affairs she received a Pulitzer Prize in 1985. All of Lurie’s fiction displays a remarkable control of language, a style that surprises and amuses. Both for her wit and for her sharp-edged, satiric depiction of human follies, Lurie has often been compared to Jane Austen, and her following in England is among the largest of any living American novelist.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Costa, Richard Hauer. Alison Lurie. New York: Twayne, 1992. The first book-length study of Lurie, this overview is an essential resource. Written with Lurie’s cooperation, the book includes a biographical sketch and discussion of all her writing, including a thorough examination of her major novels. Also features an extensive bibliography.

Hite, Molly. The Other Side of the Story: Structures and Strategies of Contemporary Feminist Literature. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989. A brief entry on Lurie with reference to her novel Foreign Affairs. Places Lurie in the genre of women writing in the margins, the metaphor in their novels being minor characters playing major roles.

Newman, Judie. Alison Lurie: A Critical Study. Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000. After a chapter of biography, Newman devotes a chapter to each of Lurie’s novels through The Last Resort.

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. London: Longman, 1994. Particularly valuable for its discussion of Lurie’s theme of transatlantic cultural differences. Offers insights into why Lurie is so popular in England.

Rogers, Katherine M. “Alison Lurie: The Uses of Adultery.” In American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1989. An important study of Lurie’s novels through Foreign Affairs. A feminist analysis, it especially concentrates on the theme of self-examination on the part of Lurie’s heroines.