Foreign Affairs

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

The War Between the Tates (1974), which chronicles the disintegration of a contemporary university and a contemporary marriage, is the best known of Alison Lurie’s six previous novels. It is a lively example of the academic novel, that quaint genre of fiction written of, by, and for professors. Lurie, who teaches at Cornell University, set her work at Corinth University, an Ivy League institution in upstate New York.

Foreign Affairs is an epistle about the Corinthians, but, except for its opening scene at Kennedy Airport and some flashbacks to a troubled Corinthian marriage, it is set entirely in England. Its two main characters, Vinnie Miner and Fred Turner, are on leaves of absence from Corinth’s English department, Vinnie to pursue “a comparative investigation of the play-rhymes of British and American Children” and Fred to do research on John Gay, the eighteenth century author of The Beggar’s Opera. Vinnie is a senior professor, a modestly renowned authority on children’s literature, while Fred is a very junior member of the faculty anxious about his prospects for tenure. Each is barely aware of the other’s existence, though their guardian fates seem to be cronies. Lurie’s novel crosscuts alternating chapters on the adventures of each, parallel lives of ignoble Americans in London, England.

One’s first glimpse of Vinnie, as she boards her flight to England, suggests not very auspicious material for a fictional heroine: “She is fifty-four years old, small, plain, and unmarried—the sort of person that no one ever notices.” Lurie does notice Vinnie, quite aware that in doing so she is going against the grain of literary tradition. In one of the book’s more prominent authorial intrusions, one that also reflects Vinnie’s own literary self-consciousness, the omniscient narrator observes: “Even today there are disproportionately few older characters in fiction. The conventions hold, and the contemporary novelist, like an up-to-date fruit-grower, reconstructs the natural landscape, removing most of the aging trees to leave room for young saplings that haven’t yet been grafted or put down deep roots.” Still, some species, such as Vinnie, take many years to bear fruit, and Foreign Affairs demonstrates that, despite her self-portrait as embattled spinster, Vinnie Miner is a worthy and lively focus of novelistic attention.

She is a proudly independent woman who harbors resentments the way London does tugboats. One of Lurie’s finer touches is ascribing to Vinnie a demon familiar, a spectral, dirty-white long-haired mutt she calls Fido and imagines as an embodiment of her accumulated self-pity. Fido accompanies Vinnie during all her encounters with the hostile world, but he becomes far less assertive as the novel develops. Occasionally, and discreetly, sexually active, Vinnie nevertheless believes herself too plain and in any case beyond the age at which love could transform her life. Against her better and worse judgment, this Eastern bluestocking becomes involved with a boorish, semieducated sanitary engineer from Tulsa. Chuck Mumpson has come to England as part of a gawky tourist group and to salvage some self-esteem. He stays to trace his genealogy, to a legendary hermit of Southley who lived in a cave, and to provide a plot complication.

At twenty-eight, Fred Turner “is a handsome, athletic-looking young man, the type that directors...

(The entire section is 1410 words.)