“In this culture, where energy and egotism are rewarded in the young and good-looking, plain aging women are supposed to be self-effacing, uncomplaining—to take up as little space and breathe as little air as possible.”
Going against my original plan, I decided to wrap up March with a novel that wasn’t The Color Purple or Lamb In His Bosom. Why? Well, on March 21, I celebrated my 26th birthday. So, as a means to make my reading journey as thematic as possible, I decided to go with a novel that not only was written by a woman (in keeping with National Women’s History Month), but the novel that won the Pulitzer Prize a few short weeks after I was born in 1985.
The only novel that fit the bill on both accounts was Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs.
When Joshua and I first set out on this journey and were collecting the winning books, we both assumed that this particular book was a romance novel. We didn’t have much evidence to make that claim other than the facts that the word “affairs” appears in the title and there’s a broken heart on the cover. I was more than pleasantly surprised to discover that we were both wrong.
While Foreign Affairs does deal with love and romance, it doesn’t specifically revolve around romantic relationships; rather, it broadens its scope to encompass human relationships at their most basic level—a common association shared between two or more people. In this novel the dynamics of acquaintances, friendships, lovers, marriages, families, enemies, and professional relationships are all explored at least briefly.
And over the course of its pages, Foreign Affairs simultaneously warms and breaks our hearts with its all-too-real portrayal of relationships.
Foreign Affairs simultaneously follows the sordid lives of two American professors on sabbatical in England: Vinne Miner, a middle-aged woman who is researching children’s folklore, and Fred Turner, a twentysomething man who is writing a book about the poet John Gay. Lurie alternatively tells their stories in each story, sometimes making their paths cross in unusual circumstances, sometimes in hokey and trite circumstances (I’ll explain this a bit more later).
Vinnie is a recent divorcee who has never cared much for love and love has never much cared for her. She is jaded and cynical and, as a result of past casual romances, has decided to live the life of, more or less, a hermit. She travels to England to do her work, and that is all—she’s not there to take in the sights, to make friends, to mingle. No. She’s strictly business. But her world is turned upside down by a dapper, albeit awkward and clumsy, Southern gentleman named Chuck Mumpson—a true blue all-American good ol’ boy who is on holiday to research his genealogy. Though she does her best to avoid him at the onset of their relationship, she eventually gives into his charm and genteelness and comes to find that she actually has affections for him. Unfortunately, their romance is cut short when he suffers a major heart attack and passes away, leaving Vinnie, once again, alone and cynical.
Then, there’s Fred.
Fred is a married man whose marriage is falling apart because of jealousy, suspicion, and resentment and is finding England to be a safe place away from the wreckage of his home in America. That is, until he gets swept up in a whirlwind romance with an English television actress who is every bit as eccentric as his current wife. Over the course of their relationship, she puts him through every wringer that his wife does and makes him emotionally crazy by the end of their foray. That is, of course, until his wife apologizes for their misunderstanding and informs him that she wants to keep trying to make their marriage work.
In the end though, despite what should have been life-altering experiences, both characters end up the same way they began. And as much as that bothered me when I finished reading the novel, upon further reflection, I think I’ve actually come to appreciate the ending more.
Because more often than not, especially when it comes to relationships, we don’t learn from our mistakes. We keep repeating and repeating them, forever in a cycle of hurt. We get out of a really bad relationship and immediately jump into a similar one, or go back to the original to try again. Sometimes it works out for the better, but not as often as the reversal. On a personal note, I know from experience: most of the time it’s best to just move on. Otherwise you will be forever entangled in a web of bad relationships and history will just keep repeating itself over and over.
And I think that’s the point Lurie makes.
Okay, very quickly: some brief criticisms and praises of Foreign Affairs.
Despite the book’s central theme revolving around relational dynamics, I feel like Lurie, at times, depended a little too much on them and forced them to become kind of a crutch. If you’ve followed my blog closely, you’ll know that I am very critical of what I call the “Magnolia Effect”—the Magnolia Effect takes its names from the film Magnolia, where an ensemble cast of several characters have very different storylines that all intertwine by the story’s end. While it is a nifty little literary device, it can all too often be abused, overused, or misused. Unfortunately, Lurie fell victim to its whims. There were a couple parts where characters from very different backgrounds, who have very different lives and very different stories came together in an all together miraculous and truly hokey fashion. It felt forced, contrived, and trite.
Now, for a praise: the thing I found most interesting about the book was Lurie’s intermingling of literary devices in a literary fashion. Let me explain—as literary critics, we are taught to look for symbolism, foreshadowing, metaphors, et al. Not only does Lurie provide a literary critic’s watchful eye with plenty of these things to keep us satisfied, she also uses these devices to tell her story (i.e., when Fred breaks up with Rosemary, his English actress girlfriend, Lurie likens it to the Revolutionary War—America quarreling with England). However, Lurie doesn’t do this in a fashion that makes the reader feel stupid for not picking up on it, and she doesn’t make the reader feel like we think she thinks we’re stupid; rather, she uses these devices almost as if they were the professors’ inner thoughts, as if they were the narrators and they were explaining their lives the way they would read their own stories.
It’s actually quite clever.
Relationships are difficult. It’s cliche to say, but nobody knows that better than me. I’ve had my fair share of relationships—romantic or otherwise—go sour. Even as I am currently venturing into a new romantic relationship and am filled to the brim with all of the excitement new romances bring, there will always be a part of me that is forever looking back at old loves and wondering what might have been had things been even remotely different. I’ve been hurt by a lot of people, and I’ve done my share of hurting others. And every time I enter into another romance, I bring along my bag of burdens, my scars, my catalog of regrets…
That’s the way it is for everyone, though. No matter the circumstances, we’re always looking for that special someone to help us hobble through life and, if at all possible, lick our wounds for us. And that’s why Foreign Affairs is such a universal novel—we all intimately know the pains, the hurts, the joys, the elation that Alison Lurie so powerfully and effectively demonstrates page after page.