Foreign Affairs Summary
by Alison Lurie

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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Foreign Affairs follows the adventures of two American professors who find love and self-knowledge while on sabbatical in London. The major character, Virginia (“Vinnie”) Miner, is a successful teacher and specialist on children’s literature and an Anglophile who makes regular visits to London. Although she has sophisticated friends and a good career, Vinnie’s personal life is meager. She has no husband, no lover, no children, no home life—only her imaginary dog Fido, the repository of all her accumulating self-pity. In addition, her latest book has been dismissed by the influential critic L. D. Zimmern as useless and out of date. With her work devalued, Vinnie worries that, at bottom, she has nothing. This changes when she is seated on the plane to London beside a brash, clumsy sanitary engineer from Tulsa, Oklahoma, named Chuck Mumpson.

Mumpson has, in a classic American way, gone from rags to riches, but a lifetime of moneymaking has left him lonely and at loose ends. Estranged from his wife and children, Mumpson is traveling alone to England to track down what he imagines will be an illustrious family tree. Mumpson at first mistakes Vinnie for an Englishwoman, and she does, indeed, aspire to the kind of Englishness associated with good taste, breeding, and a high cultural level. Vinnie at first disdains Chuck as a typical American boor, but she begins to realize that they are both lonely and unloved. As he has a fantasy of noble lineage, she has been assuming the pose of an English lady, quite above the likes of a Chuck Mumpson.

Although they become friends and then lovers, Vinnie’s snobbery continues to be a factor in their relationship. He is the kind of provincial American she thinks that her English friends will automatically patronize or dislike, even though she is later proven wrong when her English friends find him delightfully American, the “genuine article.” Vinnie’s task is to understand that her vision of England and the English is a romantic fantasy, contradicted by her actual English friends, who have little of the stuffy snobbery she herself assumes and at the same time do not always behave well. Her encounter with the scruffy adolescent Mary Maloney, who tries to extort money from her in exchange for naughty playground rhymes, also serves as a correction both to her illusions about the English and about children in general. Yet all is not disillusionment; Vinnie also comes to see that behind the bumptious exterior, Chuck is a sensitive and kind man who cares deeply for her.

As she is struggling to integrate her new relationship into her life, though, Mumpson dies suddenly of heart failure while searching for his roots in the countryside. Vinnie ends as she began, alone and unloved, with only her imaginary dog Fido as her companion. In spite of this outcome, however, the love affair has made Vinnie realize that life after fifty can be a time for adventure and change. Her affair with Chuck has transformed her, freeing her from her inhibitions and self-absorption and making her a wiser and more generous woman. The influence of the open-hearted Chuck is especially demonstrated by Vinnie’s selfless mission late at night into dangerous parts of London to further the cause of love through the reconciliation of her colleague, Fred Turner, with his wife Roo, in spite of the fact that Roo is the daughter of her nemesis, L. D. Zimmern.

Vinnie’s fellow academic Fred has also found a new love in London. Fred is young, handsome, and charming, and life has gone smoothly for him until his separation from his American wife Roo, a bohemian artist whose sexually explicit photographs precipitate a crisis in their marriage. Escaping to London, Fred falls in love with the hoydenish Roo’s opposite number Rosemary, a sophisticated and refined English actress. This infatuation, which also allows Fred entree into a chic London social set, dissolves when Fred realizes that Rosemary has an alter ego—Mrs. Harris, a...

(The entire section is 4,554 words.)