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...
(The entire section is 855 words.)