Wednesday, April 24, 2013

the last book I read

Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie.

Virginia "Vinnie" Miner is a fiftysomething American academic on her way over to Britain for a trip conducting research for her area of expertise, children's stories and rhymes. Solitary, something of an Anglophile and well-practised in her travelling routine, she is somewhat vexed to be waylaid by brash Chuck Mumpson, a tourist from Tulsa, who happens to be sitting next to her on the plane over.

Fred Turner is a twentysomething American academic in Britain for a shorter trip conducting research for his area of expertise, the work of John Gay, leaving his wife Ruth ("Roo") back in America and their volatile relationship in an uncertain state.

Don't get the idea that Vinnie and Fred are going to have some sort of tender May to December romance or any of that sort of heartwarming crap, because it's not like that at all. They do know each other, though, and it's through Vinnie that Fred meets - and starts up a relationship with - Rosemary Radley, an actress who may or may not also be a minor aristocrat, but who certainly is archetypally actressy in being what sympathetic people might call "flighty", "free-spirited", "eccentric", etc., but the rest of us would just call "mental".

Meanwhile Vinnie has unexpectedly found herself keeping in touch with Chuck Mumpson, and despite her initial reservations finds herself becoming quite fond of the big lumbering oaf. When Chuck decides to extend his stay (not having much to go back for, his marriage seemingly being in a similar state to Fred's) to do a bit of family tree research in deepest darkest Wiltshire Vinnie even finds herself drawn into having a full-blown affair with him.

But the two academics are on borrowed time in Britain, and will both have to return to America before the start of the autumn term. Rosemary takes the impending separation badly, behaving increasingly eccentrically (and drunkenly) and eventually locking herself in her flat and refusing to see Fred at all. Vinnie's relationship ends in somewhat different circumstances as she learns that Chuck has had a fatal heart attack down in Wiltshire.

And so the two academics arrive at the point of having to return home. Fred returns with a bit of a spring in his step, as he's had word from Roo that she is keen to meet up and hopes for a reconciliation, while Vinnie returns with rather more mixed feelings. Should she be sad at Chuck's death, and maybe feeling some pangs of guilt that their energetic sexing might have played a part in his demise, or happy at having (however briefly) loved and been loved? And after all, she's never been very good at living with people, and she and Chuck were too different for it to have worked out in the long term.

Foreign Affairs won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1985 - it therefore becomes the third Pulitzer winner on this list after Independence Day and The Road. It seems in a lot of ways a bit light for such a heavyweight award; Lurie cynically suggests in this 2003 Guardian interview that its being the only one of her books in which she killed off a major character probably swung it for her. Of course readability and the appearance of lightness while tackling such heavy subjects as sex and death is a cherishable skill in itself, Anne Tyler being the obvious point of comparison in terms of female American novelists. Another obvious point of comparison would be with David Lodge; the whole thing of academics criss-crossing the Atlantic and their various romantic entanglements while away from home is very familiar from Changing Places and Small World in particular. Of books in this list Weekend turns on a similar plot device as well.

Foreign Affairs was also made into a made-for-TV movie in 1993, starring some quite high-powered names. I think Brian Dennehy is a pretty good fit for Chuck Mumpson, though I must say I'd pictured Vinnie Miner as looking less like Joanne Woodward and more like Edna Mode from The Incredibles. I'd also pictured Fred Turner as being a bit more square-jawed and orthodox-looking than Eric Stoltz. And yes, all right, less, you know, ginger: there, I said it.

I think this is better than the previous Lurie in this list, The Truth About Lorin Jones, as I wasn't so sure about the slightly broad (though probably affectionate) swipes against feminism there, as well as some plot implausibilities. I think it's probably not quite as good as the only other one I've read, 1974's The War Between The Tates. Maybe you should start with that one.

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