Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie


Alison Lurie's best known book is The War Between the Tates, which, like Foreign Affairs, has "Corinth" (or Cornell as we know it) University as the backdrop. In this book two English professors are in London for extended research grants. Though they meet socially upon occasion, their connection is distant. Vinnie is in her mid-50s, considers herself plain to unattractive, set in her ways, and likes her solitude. By reading an article in the Atlantic she learns just before departure to London that L. D. Zimmern has savaged her scholarly work on American and English children's rhymes. Fred Turner, the other faculty member, is just 30, unusually handsome, and unassuming. His marriage to a woman not considered "right" for him is apparently ending. Each of them falls in love with a completely unexpected person while in London and this book is the story of those love affairs.

The pleasure of Lurie's writing is the gossipy, dismissive descriptions of individuals, and occasionally, whole cities, or in one case "half-literate middle Americans." Occasionally that grows tiresome, but the appearance of Fido overcomes those unpleasant characterizations.

The dog that is trailing Vinnie, visible only to her imagination, is her familiar demon or demon familiar, known to her privately as Fido and representing self-pity. She visualizes him as a medium-sized dirty-white long-haired mutt, mainly Welsh terrier:  sometimes trailing her silently, at other times whining and panting and nipping at her heels; when bolder, dashing round in circles trying to trip her up, or at least get her to stoop down so that he may rush at her, knock her to the ground, and cover her with sloppy kisses.

Vinnie has her unpleasant moments, but you have to love someone who turns self-pity into a mutt. Much later when she is sick for several days with a cold Fido dozes on the bed with her.

To go on feeding and petting Fido, even to acknowledge his existence too often will fatally encourage him. He will begin to grow larger, swelling from the breadth and height of a beagle to that of a retriever–a sheepdog–a Saint Bernard. If she doesn't watch out, one day Vinnie will be followed everywhere by an invisible dirty white dog the size of a cow. Though other people won't be able to visualize him as she does, they will be subliminally aware of his presence. Next to him she will look shrunken and pathetic, like someone who has accepted for all the time role of Pitiable Person.

And of course there is much else that's impressive about the book.  Lurie tells an appealing story that conveys plausible characters, particularly Vinnie. Lurie herself was a tenured faculty member in children's literature at Cornell, married to another faculty member.

I began to wonder why the writer of the article in the Atlantic is mentioned by name several times. Then we learn near the end of the book that estranged wife of Fred is his daughter which turns out not to have much plot significance. Well, L.D. Zimmern is one of the characters in The War Between the Tates. Makes me curious about his role in that story. 

Alison Lurie, Foreign Affairs, Avon Books, 1984, 291 pages. Available at UVa and the public libraries, and from Amazon. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985.

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