Foreign Affairs tests characters under the influence of enormous (and often unexpected) emotional stress involving the opposite sex, much like the wry drawing-room comedies of Jane Austen and the international novels of Henry James. In Foreign Affairs, as is often the case in Alison Lurie’s fiction, adultery is that emotional stress.
Like the characters in the novels of John Updike, a contemporary to whom Lurie is often compared, Foreign Affairs’s characters find in their experiences of illicit passion insights into the integrity of their emotional lives. Very much a product of the liberal counterculture sensibility of the late 1960’s, Lurie does not see adultery as strictly right or strictly wrong. In this novel, adultery teaches, leads to insight, and reshapes self-perceptions; fulfillment in marriage is illusory, its passion played out inevitably into routine and disappointment.
Given that both Vinnie and Fred are accomplished academics (as is Lurie), Lurie could easily draw them as stereotypes and be content to satirize the emotional liaisons of the hyperintelligent. Lurie could have satirized their clumsy attempts at escaping their egghead status quo and instead express passion, but she resists simplistic caricatures. When readers first meet Vinnie, she is a staid and self-involved academic, judgmental and aloof, prim and fussy, and above all, self-sufficient. The relationship between her and Chuck Mumpson is delightfully improbable. That the affair becomes for Vinnie her most satisfying experience of love gives Foreign Affairs a profound poignancy. Vinnie understands, in the wake of Chuck’s sudden death (from heart failure, ironically), that she is now most likely going to die alone.
Lurie’s deft narrative has Vinnie accept her loneliness just as Fred returns to his marriage. Fred, disillusioned by the pretense and shallowness of British society and perplexed by the erratic behavior of Lady Radley, comes to believe he must revive his marriage and reconnect with his wife’s potent sexuality and defiant free spirit. Such a storyline, with its use of casual sex, threatens to become little more than a glorified soap opera. Indeed, the novel was made into such a film for television. For Lurie, however, cheating is, ironically, the only way for both Vinnie and Fred Turner to see themselves honestly.
The novel displays an authorial sensibility that juxtaposes American and British lifestyles, giving Foreign Affairs its engaging sense of culture shock that recalls the international novels of Henry James. Lurie maintains a careful voice-over distance (the narrative is told in documentary-style present tense). If Lurie refuses to mock her characters’ earnest (if disastrous) struggles to love, she relishes every opportunity to hold British culture and British mores, its pretensions and its smugness, to wry (although never mean-spirited) critique. She is a sharp-eyed observer of British society and captures the rich comedy of the collisions between American and British manners and customs (the charade game that Fred plays during a long weekend at a country house is a hilarious send-up of the British laid-back temperament). There is little doubt that the gregarious and rotund Chuck, who is the character least comfortable in London and most out of his milieu there, emerges as Lurie’s most sympathetic character. Tested by great trials, he is authentic, willing to be exactly who he is; he maintains a simple goodness that cannot conceive of duplicity and meanness in others, a sincerity and honesty even in...
(The entire section is 855 words.)