Do certain decades have a unique writing style? Certainly most readers have a sense of writing that feels dated in some way — like the demanding vocabulary (by contemporary standards) and expository narrator you might find a Victorian novel. Or writing that uses language that is highly charged for today’s reader, e.g., use of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn or The Big Sky.
Alison Lurie’s writing in Foreign Affairs immediately slipped me into a late-70s, early-80s frame of mind. Her style is smooth and the pages slip by effortlessly. A bit like soft rock, novel-style. Pleasant, with a resonating groove under the surface. Easy, like Sunday morning.
Foreign Affairs centers around two English professors from a New England university who are each — separately — spending several months in London doing research. They know each other and once or twice their story lines cross in the book, but mainly, their stories are told in parallel.
The senior professor, Vinnie Miner, studies children’s folklore and has been going to England regularly for many years for research. At middle age, she’s comfortably established in her lifestyle and career, with a body of published work to her name. She’s single and we’re told not very attractive, so her reminisces of a rather robust sex life seem surprising. Still, she has accepted that commitment-free sex is the most this life is going to offer her companionship-wise.
Just as she is leaving the U.S. for a six-month stint in London, she reads a scathing review of her work in a major publication. It catches her unaware, inflames her insecurities, and embarrasses her. She boards the plane imagining all her anxiety and self-doubt as a scruffy dog named Fido tagging at her heels.
On the plane she is seated next to her worst-possible traveling companion: a badly dressed Midwestern man (polyester Western suit, lariat tie, plastic raincoat) with a slow Oklahoma drawl who tries to chat her up. She shuts him up by offering what she hopes will be a boring classic novel and is surprised that he reads it throughout the flight. This man, Chuck, is more than the rube he seems. Later he tracks her down in London and slowly, they form a friendship and then start an unexpectedly passionate love affair, despite her continued reservation that they are somehow ill-matched. This is the first foreign affair of the novel.
Fred Turner is a junior professor, heading to London for a summer research project. He was supposed to be accompanied by his headstrong, photographer wife, but her surprise exhibition of nude photos of his and other men’s body parts has split their marriage. She stays in the U.S. and Fred is stuck in dreary London alone, unable to concentrate on his work or enjoy the city. He meets a well-known English actress at a party and is drawn into her orbit and dramatic lifestyle. Suddenly London sparkles. This is the second foreign affair of the novel.
There is a fairly obvious theme here of how our appreciation — or lack thereof — of life, love, people, places and ourselves is just a matter of outlook. Fred’s perception of London is negative (dreary, rainy, unfriendly) while he is downcast on marriage, but reverses completely when he falls for the actress. Vinnie fails to acknowledge her true feelings for Chuck until it is too late, because she is so wrapped up in appearances. Fido comes and goes depending on how she thinks others see her.
Lurie writes great similes and metaphors. I found myself looking for them and gleefully highlighting when I found good ones. A few examples:
Paranoid ideas, like little invisible bats, unhook themselves from behind the tops of the drawn shutters and flitter about the darkened bedroom, occasionally landing on something with a squashy plop.
Against her better judgement, she even married one of them who was on the tearful rebound from a particularly aggravating beauty, and like a waterlogged tennis ball, had rolled into the nearest hole.
When she is ill, as now, there will never be anyone to listen sympathetically to her symptoms and bring her fresh-squeezed orange juice without being repelled by her appearance or smearing her with condescending pity like a glaucous gooseberry jam.
Part of the reason I really enjoyed this novel is some of Lurie’s comments on middle age. I am in my early 50s and looking at life quite differently than I have for the past few decades. If I tell this people this, they will brush it away with, Oh you look great! Or, don’t be silly, 50 is the new 30. But that’s not what I mean. My focus has shifted and I am looking and thinking deeply the upcoming years of my life and how I want to live them. Via Vinnie, Lurie gives a fascinating mini-analysis of aging in classic literature vs. aging in contemporary life and lit, which was, at the time of writing, the early 80s:
In the world of classic British fiction, the one Vinnie knows best, almost the entire population is under fifty, or even under forty — as was true of the real world when the novel was invented. The few older people — especially women — who are allowed into a story are usually cast as relatives; and Vinnie is no one’s mother, daughter, or sister. People over fifty who aren’t relatives are pushed into minor parts, character parts, and are usually portrayed as comic, pathetic or disagreeable. Occasionally one will appear in the role of tutor or guide to some young protagonist, but more often than not their advice and example are bad; their histories a warning rather than a model.
In most novels, it is taken for granted that people over fifty are as set in their ways as elderly apple trees, and as permanently shaped and scarred by the years they have weathered. The literary convention is that nothing major can happen to them except through subtraction. They may struck by lightning or pruned by the hand of man; they may grow weak or hollow; their sparse fruit may become misshapen, spotted or sourly crabbed. They may endure these changes nobly or meanly. But they cannot, under the best of circumstances, put out new growth or burst into lush and unexpected bloom.
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. Vinnie has accepted this convention; she has tried for years to accustom herself to the idea that the rest of her life will be a mere epilogue to what was never, it has to be admitted, a very exciting novel.
But the self, whatever its age, is subject to the usual law of optics. However peripheral we may be in the lives of others, each of us is always a central point round which the entire world whirls in radiating perspective. And this world, Vinnie thinks now, is not English literature. It is full of people over fifty who will be around, and in fairly good shape, for the next quarter-century: plenty of time for adventure and change, even for heroism and transformation.
Because of its soft-rock reading style, I think you can glide through this novel and shelve it without it getting caught in your head. And you may, as I did, wonder why it was the 1985 Pulitzer prize winner. But it may be — and I have no research or facts to back me up — that this novel reflects cultural and academic thought at that time, particularly with regard to feminist literary ideas . I was in high school and college in the 80s, and it was the end of second-wave feminism. Women’s Studies programs were big, and feminist literary critique or commentary was often met with ambivalence by the old-school profs and enthusiasm by the junior faculty. I bet this novel and its themes and characters were as timely as, say, immigrant issues are today.
But this might all be the speculation of a middle-age woman looking back when all she really wants is to do is look forward, hoping that there might yet be few bursts of lush and unexpected bloom in these next couple of decades.