(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The War Between the Tates, Lurie’s best-known novel, is a wickedly humorous satire on marriage, infidelity, and American society. Lurie sets her narrative during the time of the Vietnam War, and early in the novel she develops an extended comparison between that disastrous American conflict and the typically American Tate marriage.

Brian and Erica Tate, like the South Vietnamese, find that their territory (an upper-middle-class house on Jones Creek Road, near Corinth University) is being taken over. The Tates liken their teenage children, Jeffrey and Matilda, to North Vietnamese invaders. Like America’s involvement in Vietnam, the conflict between the Tates and their children began in a way analogous to a police action and has steadily escalated into all-out deadly warfare. From the children’s point of view, their parents are the American invaders—superior in experience and resources but deeply hypocritical. While the children want only independence and self-government, the parents refuse to negotiate, so the children retreat into the jungles of their upstairs rooms, coming out only briefly for guerrilla skirmishes.

Brian and Erica, on the other hand, regard themselves as democratic and freedom-loving people; never having officially declared themselves at war, they see their mission as a peace-keeping and advisory effort. Although they have won most of the brief, pitched battles, however, the parents know that in the long run they will never win the war. The separation of powers by which they have operated their marriage—Erica as the executive branch and Brian as the legislative and judicial—has utterly failed to suppress colonial revolt. The Tates’ victories are now all negative ones; the best they can hope for is to contain the enemy within the existing combat zone.

Lurie’s witty metaphor is carried throughout the novel (perhaps too much so, as some have criticized). Brian and Erica’s separation is like the division in America itself. Erica, tired of her selfish, rude, and rebellious children, has given up the fight, while Brian finds her desertion disheartening and disloyal. Just as there...

(The entire section is 879 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The war between the Tates is fought on two fronts simultaneously. The less-destructive engagements are the skirmishes between two generations—Brian and Erica Tate and their two, young, teenage children, Jeffrey and Matilda. The once adorable Muffy and Jeffo have become coarse and insolent, “awful lodgers—lodgers who paid no rent, whose lease could not be terminated.” Their wickedness takes the usual forms: a preoccupation with loud music, a sulky intransigence when faced with any request from their parents, and flamboyant impulses in dress and grooming.

Yet as these generational conflicts work themselves out—a land mine here, a mortar burst there—armed combat of the deadliest kind is being waged in the marital trenches between Brian and Erica. The battle is set off by an old tactic: the ambush of a middle-aged man by a much younger woman. Brian, a professor of political science at Corinth University, is working hard on a scholarly book when Wendy Gahaghan, a slightly soiled flower child, insistently presents herself to him as a romantic sacrifice to what she perceives as his genius and goodness. Once their affair is in full flush, Erica is quick to find out. The Tates at first effect a nervous truce, but Erica’s dramatic discovery that Wendy is pregnant leads to Brian’s banishment to an apartment. The pregnancy is aborted, but the hostilities continue.

During her separation, Erica leans on her friend Danielle Zimmern, already divorced from her English-professor husband and thoroughly embittered...

(The entire section is 628 words.)