Book Review: Alison Lurie’s “Foreign Affairs”

Alison Lurie, I’ve read a bunch of books and feel that I can mention that there are common themes and methods.

Her books tend to involve “smart” people, (or at least people with lots of cultural capital, especially around English Literature,) who think that they know themselves very well. Thanks to their knowledge of narratives, and facility with words, they are able to construct plausible narratives of what’s going on in the heads of people around them.

But thanks to arch and omniscient narration by Lurie, these characters are revealed to have at best shaky ideas of their own motivations and patterns. Often their ideas of what is going on in other people’s heads are quite wrong. So then ensue comedies and tragedies of misunderstanding, where if everybody had been able to sit down and have an entirely honest, “rational” discussion, there might have been good or even excellent outcomes. But this is the real world and that that is not the case.

Lurie adds an additional complication, that sex and sexual desire, often even further clouds people’s judgment of themselves and of others.

So, “intelligence”, hubris, blindness to what is actually going on in anyone’s head, sex haze, bad outcomes. As those who know me will understand, it’s a bit of a stretch for me to find common ground with Lurie and her characters, but I try my best…

Ulttimately, Lurie is very interested in stories – the stories that are told to other people, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and about other people. I’m making it sound somehow dry or misanthropic, but don’t think that’s the case. Her novels are filled with wit, insight, dry humor. words you’ve not read before (tumulus, voire), and then close observation of nature, clothing, furniture, buildings, you name it. So I would strongly recommend Alison Lurie – you’ll find yourself reading the books slower and slower because you don’t want them to end (and, spoilers, like with life, there are not always happy endings.)

The latest I’ve read her 1984 Pulitzer-Prize winning effort, Foreign Affairs. She follows two Americans the 54 year old professor of children’s literature Vinnie Miner on yet another to do research into children’s rhymes in London and the very handsome Fred Turner who is 28 and trying to write a book about John Gay of the Beggar’s Opera . Miner and Turner are academics at Corinth University (which is Lurie’s fictional go to for Cornell). You follow their intertwining stories over the course of six months as they both unexpectedly fall in love but the path of true love does not run smooth Of course it wouldn’t be a novel if it did.

Did I mention that you should really read this book?

Over the next couple of weeks I will use short excerpts to riff on things like academic patronage, surviving boring academic events, networks versus webs, and so on. Bet you can’t wait…

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