Foreign Affairs (1984)

by Alison Lurie

A subtly humorous novel, Foreign Affairs won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985. It is long on characterization and witty observations about life, love, and living abroad. Vinnie Miner and Fred Turner, two professors of English literature at fictional Corinth University in upstate New York (modeled on Cornell University, where Lurie teaches English), are coincidentally in London at the same time to do research. Though in the same university department, they're not chummy. Fred, not yet 30, is a generation younger than 54-year-old Vinnie. They cross paths in London now and then, and some of the same people figure in their experiences, but their stories are essentially separate. Vinnie and Fred are presented as contrasting types, and each chapter is devoted to one or the other. 

Vinnie is single, small, mousey. Her colleagues would be surprised to learn that she has enjoyed uncommitted sexual affairs. Despite her academic specialty — children's folk rhymes — she doesn't really love children and never wanted any of her own. Fred, on the other hand, is a hunk whose looks haven't kept him from being miserably lonely at the start of the book. His wife had suddenly left him before he left the U.S., and Fred is wretched, having trouble working and unable to find anything likable about London.

The book's title hints at what's going to happen. Fred falls precipitously in love with an aristocratic British actress. Love creeps up on Vinnie; a American sanitary engineer who disturbed her privacy on the flight over intrudes on her space again, and Vinnie gradually discovers he has endearing qualities even though he never reads books. Though the sudden upsurge of activity (mistaken identity, a death) at the end of the book comes off as somewhat contrived, and Fred's deliverance seems too pat, Foreign Affairs until then is a believable tale about two unlikely affairs. How Vinnie and Fred each emerge from their experiences is not predictable.

An interesting aspect is the picture Lurie draws of academia. Vinnie is a credible scholar, but there's little to indicate that Fred is actually turned on by his field, 18th-century English literature. Lurie also shows us what wisdom is and is not: Just because you have a PhD and teach at an Ivy League university (and in a field whose bread and butter is the human condition) doesn't mean you won't be as muddled about relationships as the rest of  us.


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