Lurie, Alison. Foreign Affairs.

NY: Random House, 1984.

Prof. Vinnie Miner, a specialist in children’s literature and folk culture at what passes for Cornell, is small in stature and plain of face, now in her fifties and well practiced at living by (and for) herself. She’s selfish, in a constructive sort of way, but the fact that she was raised to be a lady generally wins out. (Though her neighbors had better keep an eye on their roses.)

Vinnie loves England and especially London, spending as much time there as possible over the years, and now she has a six-month grant to research British children’s schoolyard rhymes. Her long experience in Britain means she knows exactly how to cope with being a foreigner and she has a great many acquaintances (though perhaps not friends) there.

Prof. Fred Turner is in his late twenties, anything but plain, and a junior faculty member in Vinnie’s department. He’s tall, athletic, and almost obscenely attractive, but he’s not at all the self-centered, smug dilettante some people assume he must be. Being very good looking is nice when you’re young but it can be a real disadvantage when you’re trying to teach college freshmen (all those swooning girls, and a few guys, as well) and serving on faculty committees. Fred hates England and especially London, at least when he first arrives to do research for a book on poet and playwright John Gay. This is partly because he’s never been there before (as an adult) and can’t deal with the alienness, but mostly because his marriage broke up — “exploded” is perhaps a better description — and all the sights he expected to see and the things he expected to do with his wife, he’s now doing alone.

The title might lead the reader to wonder if Vinnie and Fred will somehow get together in London, but that isn’t what Lurie has in mind at all. Instead, Vinnie will reluctantly be the means by which Fred will meet Lady Rosemary Radley, beloved BBC actress in romantic period dramas, and be swept into her orbit, and her unkempt boudoir. It’s the side of English culture and life he expected never to see and it changes the way he views the country, too. Meanwhile, Vinnie herself even more reluctantly becomes involved with Chuck Mumpster, a forcibly retired sewage treatment engineer from Tulsa, whose earthy style and cowboy-hat manners represent everything she comes to England to escape. But somehow, Chuck grows on her. Is there a place in Vinnie’s life for someone so unlettered and plebian at this late date? And what would her English friends think?

I like Lurie’s inventive handling of Vinnie’s convoluted personality — especially Fido, the imaginary scruffy little white dog of self-pity, who always shows up when she’s in the dumps to follow her around and do her whining for her. Even though he switches his allegiance to Chuck on occasion, he always returns to trail at her heels, knowing she will need him again.

Along with the three or four principal narrative lines, Lurie has some astute and subtle observations to make on a number of topics, such as the nature of tourism — that tourists and short-term visitors in a foreign land are essentially ghostly. “London isn’t real to them, and to Londoners they are equally unreal — pale, featureless, two-dimensional figures who clog up the traffic and block the view.” Such short-term travelers also are reduced to only two of their five senses: Sight (hence “sightseers”) and taste (in the quest for native cuisine). A strange language and strange ambient noises, not to mention peculiar odors, make hearing and smell useless, and museums are filled with warnings not to touch. That’s great writing. I’ve seen Alison Lurie’s books denigrated as “chick lit,” but that’s an extremely shortsighted judgment. In fact, she reminds me in many ways of a modern Edith Wharton. If you haven’t discovered her work before this, here’s your chance.

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