On this day in 1926, Alison Lurie was born. Lurie, a folklorist, children’s literature scholar, and the author of 10 novels, died last December at 94. I first encountered her work a few years ago, when I was poking around the Wikipedia page for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (I recommend it, if only for the lesson in titling trends). I had at least heard of all the winners from the past 40 years, except one: Lurie’s Foreign Affairs, which won the prize in 1985.
In a New York Times review of the book, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote that Lurie “has quietly but surely established herself as one of this country’s most able and witty novelists.” I love quietly able and witty novelists, so I picked up the book, and discovered a pitch-perfect literary rom-com. (I should mention that there does exist a TV movie adaptation of Foreign Affairs, starring Joanne Woodward, Brian Dennehy, and Eric Stoltz, but though the cast intrigues me, I have never seen it, and therefore do not consider it canon.)
(Now More Than Ever) I love the comforts of a romantic comedy, on both the screen and the page. When it comes to books, though I consider myself a defender of chick lit as a whole, the truth is that I’m still a snob for good sentences—which, to be fair, are rare in books, generally, not just those with lips on the cover. Foreign Affairs is the rare book that—much like certain rom-com heroines—is an object lesson in having it all.
The novel follows Virginia “Vinnie” Miner, a professor—“fifty-four years old, small, plain, and unmarried—the sort of person that no one ever notices”—setting off on a research trip to London. Vinnie, we learn on the first page, is trailed by an imaginary dog named Fido, who represents her self pity, triggered at the novel’s beginning by a vicious takedown of her life’s work (her field, like Lurie’s, is children’s literature) in the Atlantic.
I mean, Nancy Meyers, eat your heart out!
On the plane over, Anglophile Vinnie meets (cute) an unlikely romantic interest, an extremely friendly, quintessentially American man named Chuck who has failed, David Puddy-style, to bring any reading material with him. (She lends him a copy of Little Lord Fauntleroy.)
Vinne’s (hot, young, married) colleague, Fred Turner, is also in London for research, though he’s not the Something’s Gotta Give Keanu to her be-turtlenecked Diane—instead, he becomes romantically entangled with a British actress, which becomes Vinnie’s problem in more ways than one.
I won’t give away the book’s ending, I’ll only say that it’s not as tidy as a typical romantic comedy, which isn’t to say it’s not warm and funny and slightly tricky—it’s all of that. If there were a Foreign Affairs bucket hat, I would wear it in a heartbeat.