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  • Foreign Affairs
  • Written by Alison Lurie
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780812976311
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Foreign Affairs

A Novel

Written by Alison LurieAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Alison Lurie

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE

Virginia Miner, a fifty-something, unmarried tenured professor, is in London to work on her new book about children’s folk rhymes. Despite carrying a U.S. passport, Vinnie feels essentially English and rather looks down on her fellow Americans. But in spite of that, she is drawn into a mortifying and oddly satisfying affair with an Oklahoman tourist who dresses more Bronco Billy than Beau Brummel.

Also in London is Vinnie’s colleague Fred Turner, a handsome, flat broke, newly separated, and thoroughly miserable young man trying to focus on his own research. Instead, he is distracted by a beautiful and unpredictable English actress and the world she belongs to.

Both American, both abroad, and both achingly lonely, Vinnie and Fred play out their confused alienation and dizzying romantic liaisons in Alison Lurie’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Smartly written, poignant, and witty, Foreign Affairs remains an enduring comic masterpiece.

“A splendid comedy, very bright, brilliantly written in a confident and original manner. The best book by one of our finest writers.”
–Elizabeth Hardwick

“There is no American writer I have read with more constant pleasure and sympathy. . . . Foreign Affairs earns the same shelf as Henry James and Edith Wharton.”
–John Fowles

“If you manage to read only a few good novels a year, make this one of them.”
USA Today

“An ingenious, touching book.”
Newsweek

“A flawless jewel.”
Philadelphia Inquirer

Excerpt

1

As I walked by myself

And talked to myself,

Myself said unto me,

Look to thyself,

Take care of thyself,

For nobody cares for thee.

Old Song

On a cold blowy February day a woman is boarding the ten a.m. flight to London, followed by an invisible dog. The woman’s name is Virginia Miner: she is fifty-four years old, small, plain, and unmarried—the sort of person that no one ever notices, though she is an Ivy League college professor who has published several books and has a well-established reputation in the expanding field of children’s literature.

The dog that is trailing Vinnie, visible only to her imagination, is her familiar demon or demon familiar, known to her privately as Fido and representing self-pity. She visualizes him as a medium-sized dirty-white long-haired mutt, mainly Welsh terrier: sometimes trailing her silently, at other times whining and panting and nipping at her heels; when bolder, dashing round in circles trying to trip her up, or at least get her to stoop down so that he may rush at her, knock her to the ground, and cover her with sloppy kisses. Vinnie knows very well that Fido wants to get onto the plane with her, but she hopes to leave him behind, as she has successfully done on other trips abroad. Recent events, however, and the projected length of her stay, make this unlikely.

Vinnie is leaving today for six months in England on a foundation grant. There, under her professional name of V. A. Miner, she will continue her study of the folk-rhymes of schoolchildren. She has made this journey a number of times, and through a process of trial and error reduced its expense and discomfort to a minimum. She always chooses a daytime charter flight, preferring those on which no films are shown. If she could afford it, she would pay the regular fare so as to avoid boarding delays (she has already stood in various lines for nearly an hour); but that would be foolishly extravagant. Her grant is small, and she will have to watch expenses carefully as it is.

Though patience is held to be a virtue most appropriate to women, especially aging women, Vinnie has always particularly disliked waiting for anything, and never does so if it can be avoided. Now, for instance, she elbows her way deftly past less experienced passengers who are searching for their seat numbers or are encumbered with excess luggage or with children, excusing herself in a thin pleasant voice. By crossing through the galley to the far aisle and back again between two rows of seats, she outflanks a massed confusion of obvious rubes with carry-on bags labeled sun tours. In less time than it takes to read this paragraph she has made her way to a window seat near an exit in the nonsmoking section, pausing only to extract the London Times and British Vogue from a magazine rack. (Once the plane is airborne, the stewardess will distribute periodicals to all the passengers, but those Vinnie prefers may vanish before they reach her.)

Following her usual procedure, Vinnie slides into her place and unzips her boots. In stocking feet she climbs onto the seat and opens the overhead locker; since she is barely over five feet tall, this is the only way she can reach it. She removes two pillows and a loose-woven blue blanket, which she drops onto the center seat beside her handbag and her British periodicals, thus tacitly claiming this space if—as is likely in midweek and mid-February—it hasn’t been assigned to anyone. Then she arranges her worn wool-lined raincoat, her floppy beige felt hat, and her amber-and-beige Liberty-print wool shawl in the locker, in such a way that only the rudest of fellow passengers will attempt to encroach upon them. She slams the locker shut with some difficulty, and sits down. She stows her boots under her own seat along with a carton of duty-free Bristol Cream sherry, and puts on a pair of folding slippers. She arranges one pillow beside her head and wedges the other between her hip and the arm of the chair. Finally she smooths her crisply cut graying hair, leans back, and with a sigh fastens the seatbelt across her tan wool sweater and skirt.

A disinterested observer, Vinnie is quite aware, might well consider these maneuvers and condemn her as self-concerned and grasping. 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. All very well, she thinks, if you travel with someone dear to you or at least familiar: someone who will help you stow away your coat, tuck a pillow behind your head, find you a newspaper—or if you choose, converse with you.

But what of those who travel alone? Why should Vinnie Miner, whose comfort has been disregarded by others for most of her adult life, disregard her own comfort? Why should she allow her coat, hat, and belongings to be crushed by the coats and hats and belongings of younger, larger, handsomer persons? Why should she sit alone for seven or eight hours, pillowless and chilled, reading an outdated copy of Punch, with her feet swollen and her pale amber eyes watering from the smoke of the cigarette fiends in the adjoining seats? As she often says to herself—though never aloud, for she knows how unpleasant it would sound—why shouldn’t she look out for herself? Nobody else will.

But such internal arguments, frequent as they are with Vinnie, occupy little of her mind now. The uneven, uncharacteristically loud sigh she gave as she sank back against the scratchy blue plush was not a sigh of contentment, or even one of relief: it was an exhalation of wretchedness. Her travel routine has been performed by rote; if she were alone, she would break into wails of misery and vexation, and stain the London Times with her tears.

Twenty minutes ago, while waiting in the departure lounge in a cheerful mood, Vinnie read in a magazine of national circulation a scornful and disparaging reference to her life’s work. Projects such as hers, the article stated, are a prime example of the waste of public funds, the proliferation of petty and useless scholarship, and the general weakness and folly of the humanities in America today. Do we really need a scholarly study of playground doggerel? inquired the writer, one L. D. Zimmern, a professor of English at Columbia. No doubt Mr. or Ms. Miner would answer this query by assuring us of the social, historical, or literary value of “Ring-around-a-rosy,” he continued, sawing through the supports of any possible answer; but he, for one, was not convinced.

What makes this unprovoked attack especially hideous is that for over thirty years the Atlantic has been Vinnie’s favorite magazine. Though she was raised in the suburbs of New York and teaches at an upstate university, her imaginative loyalties are to New England. She has often thought that American culture took a long downward step when its hegemony passed from Boston to New York in the late nineteenth century; and it has been a comfort to her that the Atlantic continues to be edited from Back Bay. When she pictures her work receiving general public recognition, it is to this magazine that she awards the honor of discovery. She has fantasized the process often: the initial letter of inquiry, the respectfully eager manner of the interviewer, the title of the finished essay; the moment when her colleagues at Corinth University and elsewhere will open the magazine and see her name printed on its glossy pages in its characteristic and elegant typeface. (Vinnie’s ambition, though steady and ardent, is comparatively modest: it hasn’t occurred to her that her name might be printed upon the cover of the Atlantic.) She has imagined all that will follow: the sudden delighted smiles of her friends; the graceless grins of those who are not her friends and have undervalued both her and her subject. The latter group, alas, will be much more numerous.

For the truth is that children’s literature is a poor relation in her department—indeed, in most English departments: a stepdaughter grudgingly tolerated because, as in the old tales, her words are glittering jewels of a sort that attract large if not equally brilliant masses of undergraduates. Within the departmental family she sits in the chimney-corner, while her idle, ugly siblings dine at the chairman’s table—though, to judge by enrollment figures, many of them must spout toads and lizards.

Well, Vinnie thinks bitterly, now she has got her wish; her work has been mentioned in the Atlantic. Just her luck—because surely there were others whose project titles might have attracted the spiteful attention of L. D. Zimmern. But of course it was she he chose, what else could she expect? Vinnie realizes that Fido has followed her onto the plane and is snuffling at her legs, but she lacks the energy to push him away.

Above her seat the warning light has been turned on; the engines begin to vibrate as if with her own internal tremor. Vinnie stares through the streaked, distorting oblong of glass at gray tarmac, pitted heaps of dirty congealed snow, other planes taxiing toward takeoff; but what she sees is a crowd of Atlantic magazines queuing for departure or already en route, singly or in squadrons, flying over the United States in the hands and briefcases of travelers, hitching their way in automobiles, loaded onto trucks and trains, bundled and tied for sale on newsstands. She visualizes what must come or has already come of this mass migration: she sees, all over the country—in homes and offices, in libraries and dentists’ waiting rooms—her colleagues, ex-colleagues, students, ex-students, neighbors, ex-neighbors, friends, and ex-friends (not to mention the members of the Foundation Grants Committee). All of them, at this moment or some other moment, are opening the Atlantic, turning its glossy white pages, coming upon that awful paragraph. She imagines which ones will laugh aloud; which will read the sentences out with a sneering smile; which will gasp with sympathy; and which will groan, thinking or saying how bad it looks for the Department or for the Foundation. “Hard on Vinnie,” one will remark. “But you have to admit there’s something a little comic about the title of her proposal: ‘A comparative investigation of the play-rhymes of British and American Children’—well now, really.”

About its title, perhaps; not about its content, as she has spent years proving. Trivial as it may seem, her material is rich in meaning. For example—Vinnie, almost involuntarily, begins composing in her head a letter to the editor of the Atlantic—consider the verse to which Professor Zimmern took such particular exception:

Ring around a rosy

Pocketful of posies.

Ashes, ashes,

We all fall down.

—This rhyme appears from internal as well as external evidence to date very possibly from the Great Plague of 1665. If so, the “posies” may be the nosegays of flowers and herbs carried by citizens of London to ward off infection, while “Ashes, ashes,” perhaps refers to the burning of dead bodies that littered the streets.

—If Professor Zimmern had troubled to do his research . . . if he had merely taken the time to inquire of any authority in the field—Vinnie continues her imaginary letter—he . . . he would be alive today. Unbidden, these words appear in her mind to complete the sentence. She sees L. D. Zimmern, whom she has never met but imagines (inaccurately) to be fat and bald, as a plague-swollen, discolored corpse. He is lying on the cobblestones of a seventeenth- century London alley, his clothes foully stained with vomit, his face blackened and contorted, his limbs hideously askew in the death agony, his faded posy of herbs wilting beside him.

—Many more of these apparently “meaningless” verses, she resumes, a little shocked by her own imagination, have similar hidden historical and social referents, and preserve in oral form . . .

While the stewardess, in a strained BBC accent, begins her rote exhortation, Vinnie continues her letter to the editor. Phrases she has used many times in lectures and articles repeat themselves within her head, interspersed with those coming over the loudspeakers. “Children’s game-rhymes/Place the life vest over your head/oldest universal literature/Bring the straps to the front and fasten them securely/ representing for millions of people their earliest and often their only exposure to/Pulling on the cord will cause the vest to become inflated with air.” Inflated with air, indeed. As she knows from bitter experience, nothing is ever gained by sending such letters. Either they are blandly refused (“We regret that our limited space prevents . . .”) or, worse, they are accepted and printed weeks or months later, reminding everyone of your discomfiture long after they had forgotten about it, and making you seem a sore loser.

Not only mustn’t she write to the Atlantic: she must take care never to mention its attack on her to anyone, friend or foe. In academic life it is considered weak and undignified to complain of your reviews. Indeed, in Vinnie’s experience, the only afflictions it is really safe to mention are those shared by all your colleagues: the weather, inflation, delinquent students, and so forth. Bad publicity must be dealt with as Vinnie was once taught by her mother to deal with flaws in her adolescent appearance: in total silence. “If you have a spot on your face or your dress, Vinnie, for goodness’ sake don’t mention it. At best you’ll be reminding people of something unpleasant about yourself; at worst you’ll call it to the attention of those who might never have noticed.” Yes; no doubt a very sensible policy. Its only disadvantage is that Vinnie will never know who has noticed this new ugly spot and who hasn’t. Never, never know. Fido, who has been standing with his forepaws on her knees, whining hopefully, now scrambles into her lap.

The rackety roar of the engines increases; the plane begins to trundle down the runway, gathering speed. At what seems the last possible moment it lurches unevenly upward, causing the usual shudder in Vinnie’s bowels and the sensation of having been struck on the back of the neck with the seat-cushion. She swallows with difficulty and glances toward the window, where a frozen gray section of Long Island suburb is wheeling by at an unnatural angle. She feels queasy, disoriented, damaged. And no wonder, whines Fido: this public sneer will be in her life forever, part of her shabby history of losses and failures.

Vinnie knows, of course, that she ought not to take it so hard. But she knows too that those who have no significant identity outside their careers—no spouse, no lover, no parents, no children—do take such things hard. In the brief distant time when she was married, professional reverses did not damage the core of her life; they could not disrupt the comfort (or, later, the discomfort) of what went on at home. They were, so to speak, outside the plane, muffled by social insulation and the hum of the marital engines. Now these blows fall on her directly, as if the heavy oblong of glass had been removed so that Vinnie could be slapped full in the face with the Atlantic—not the magazine, but a cold half-congealed sopping-wet arm of the ocean after which it is named, over which they are passing; slapped again and again and—

“Excuse me.” It is a real voice that Vinnie now hears, the voice of the passenger in the aisle seat: a bulky, balding man in a tan Western-cut suit and rawhide tie.

“Yes?”

“I just said, mind if I take a look at your newspaper?”

Though Vinnie does mind, she is constrained by convention from saying so. “Not at all.”

“Thanks.”

She acknowledges the man’s grin with the faintest possible nod; then, to protect herself from his conversation and her own thoughts, picks up Vogue. Listlessly she turns its shiny pages, stopping at an article on winter soups and again at one on indoor gardening. The references to marrowbones, parsnips, and partridges, to Christmas roses and ivy, the erudite yet cosily confiding style—so different from the hysterical exhortation of American fashion magazines—make her smile as if recognizing an old friend. The pieces on clothes and beauty, on the other hand, she passes over rapidly. She has now no use for, and has never derived any benefit from, their advice.

For nearly forty years Vinnie has suffered from the peculiar disadvantages of the woman born without physical charms. Even as a child she had a nondescript sort of face, which gave the impression of a small wild rodent: the nose sharp and narrow, the eyes round and rather too close-set, the mouth a nibbling slit. For the first eleven years of her life, however, her looks gave no one any concern. But as she approached puberty, first her suddenly anxious mother and then Vinnie herself attempted to improve upon her naturally meager endowments. Faithfully, they followed the changing recommendations of acquaintances and of the media, but never with any success. The ringlets and ruffles popular in Vinnie’s late childhood did not become her; the austerely cut, square-shouldered clothes of World War II emphasized her adolescent scrawniness; the New Look drowned her in excess yardage, and so on through every subsequent change of fashion. Indeed, it would be kinder to draw a veil over some of Vinnie’s later attempts at stylishness: her bony forty-year-old legs in an orange leather miniskirt; her narrow mouse’s face peering from behind teased hair and an oversized pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses.

When she reached fifty, however, Vinnie began to abandon these strenuous efforts. She ceased tinting her hair a juvenile and unnatural shade of auburn and let it grow out its natural piebald gray-beige; she gave away half her clothes and threw out most of her makeup. She might as well face facts, she told herself: she was a disadvantaged woman, doubly disadvantaged now by age; someone men would not charge at with bullish enthusiasm no matter how many brightly colored objects she waved to attract their attention. Well, at least she could avoid being a figure of fun. If she couldn’t look like an attractive woman, she could at least look like a lady.

But just as she was resigning herself to total defeat, the odds began to alter in Vinnie’s favor. Within the last couple of years she has in a sense caught up with, even passed, some of her better-equipped contemporaries. The comparison of her appearance to that of other women of her age is no longer a constant source of mortification. She is no better looking than she ever was, but they have lost more ground. Her slim, modestly proportioned figure has not been made bulgy and flabby by childbearing or by overeating and overdieting; her small but rather nice breasts (creamy, pink-tipped) have not fallen. Her features have not taken on the injured, strained expression of the former beauty, nor does she paint and decorate or simper and coo in a desperate attempt to arouse the male interest she feels to be her due. She is not consumed with rage and grief at the cessation of attentions that were in any case moderate, undependable, and intermittent.

As a result men—even men she has been intimate with—do not now gaze upon her with dismay, as upon a beloved landscape devastated by fire, flood, or urban development. They do not mind that Vinnie Miner, who was never much to look at, now looks old. After all, they hadn’t slept with her out of romantic passion, but out of comradeship and temporary mutual need—often almost absent-mindedly, to relieve the pressure of their desire for some more glamorous female. It wasn’t uncommon for a man who had just made love to Vinnie to sit up naked in bed, light a cigarette, and relate to her the vicissitudes of his current romance with some temperamental beauty—breaking off occasionally to say how great it was to have a pal like her.

Some may be surprised to learn that there is this side to Professor Miner’s life. But it is a mistake to believe that plain women are more or less celibate. The error is common, since in the popular mind—and especially in the media—the idea of sex is linked with the idea of beauty. Partly as a result, men are not eager to boast of their liaisons with unattractive women, or to display such liaisons in public. As for the women, painful experience and a natural sense of self-preservation often keep them from publicizing these relationships, in which they seldom have the status of a declared lover, though often that of a good friend.

As has sometimes been remarked, almost any woman can find a man to sleep with if she sets her standards low enough. But what must be lowered are not necessarily standards of character, intelligence, sexual energy, good looks, and worldly achievement. Rather, far more often, she must relax her requirements for commitment, constancy, and romantic passion; she must cease to hope for declarations of love, admiring stares, witty telegrams, eloquent letters, birthday cards, valentines, candy, and flowers. No; plain women often have a sex life. What they lack, rather, is a love life.

Vinnie has now reached an article in Vogue devoted to new ideas for children’s birthday parties, which arouses her professional dismay because of its emphasis on adult-directed commercial entertainment: the hiring of professional magicians and clowns, the organization of sightseeing trips, etc.—just the sort of thing that is tending more and more to replace the traditional rituals and games. Partly as a result of such articles, the ancient and precious folk culture of childhood is rapidly being destroyed. Meanwhile, those who hope to record and preserve this vanishing heritage are sneered at, denigrated, slandered in popular magazines. Woof, woof.

“Here’s your paper.” Vinnie’s seatmate holds out the London Times, clumsily refolded.

“Oh. Thank you.” To avoid further requests for it from other passengers, she places the newspaper in her lap beneath Vogue.

“Thank you. Not much in it.”

Since this is not phrased as a question, Vinnie is not obliged to respond, and does not. Not much of what? she wonders. Perhaps of American news, sports events, middlebrow comment, or even advertisements, in comparison to whatever paper he habitually reads. Or perhaps, being used to screaming headlines and exclamatory one-sentence paragraphs, he has been misled by the typographical and stylistic restraint of the Times into thinking that nothing of importance occurred in the world yesterday. And perhaps nothing has, though to her, to V. A. Miner, arf, arf, awooo! Stop that, Fido.

Setting aside Vogue, she unfolds the newspaper. Gradually, the leisurely Times style, with its air of measured consideration and its undertone of educated irony, begins to calm her, as the voice of an English nanny might quiet a hurt, overwrought child.

“You on your way to London?”

“What? Yes.” Caught as it were in the act, she admits her destination, and returns her glance to the story Nanny is telling her about Prince Charles.

“Glad to get out of that New York weather, I bet.”

Again Vinnie agrees, but in such a way as to make it clear that she does not choose to converse. She shifts her body and the tissuey sheets of the paper toward the window, though nothing can be seen there. The plane seems to stand still, shuddering with a monotonous regularity, while ragged gray billows of cloud churn past.

However long the flight, Vinnie always tries to avoid striking up acquaintance with anyone, especially on transatlantic journeys. According to her calculations, there is far more chance of having to listen to some bore for seven-and-a-half hours than of meeting someone interesting—and after all, whom even among her friends would she want to converse with for so long?

Besides, this man looks like someone Vinnie would hardly want to converse with for seven-and-a-half minutes. His dress and speech proclaim him to be, probably, a Southern Plains States businessman of no particular education or distinction; the sort of person who goes on package tours to Europe. And indeed the carry-on bag that rests between his oversize Western-style leather boots is pasted with the same sun tours logo she had noticed earlier: fat comic-book letters enclosing a grinning Disney sun. Physically too he is of a type she has never cared for: big, ruddy, blunt-featured, with cropped coarse graying red hair. Some women would consider him attractive in a weather-beaten Western way; but Vinnie has always preferred in men an elegant slimness, fair fine hair and skin, small well-cut features—the sort of looks that are an idealized male version of her own.
Alison Lurie|Author Q&A

About Alison Lurie

Alison Lurie - Foreign Affairs
Alison Lurie is the author of many highly praised novels, including The War Between the Tates, The Truth About Lorin Jones (Prix Femina Etranger), and Foreign Affairs (Pulitzer Prize for fiction). Her most recent book was Familiar Spirits. She teaches writing, folklore, and literature at Cornell University.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Alison Lurie

Question: Did Foreign Affairs come to you in terms of a character
or of a structure?

Alison Lurie: Mostly in terms of a theme. Once I started spending
time abroad, I noticed that friends and colleagues who moved from
one country to another sometimes got a second chance at life. I
wanted to write about how people, when they are in a new place and
not surrounded by the expectations of others, can change. I think
that can also happen when you move from one part of this country to
another. When I see friends from New York in Key West, they often
seem different there from how they are in New York.

Q: You do a lot with allegorical figures and animal equivalents, like
the invisible little dog that follows Vinnie onto the plane in the first
scene. Do you see the characters like animals in your mind’s eye?

AL: I must think that way because I find that I keep doing it. By the
way, Vinnie’s dog isn’t always little. The thing about Fido is that his
size changes depending on how sorry she’s feeling for herself. He’s
still there at the end of the novel, but he’s much smaller. It would be
illogical to think that Vinnie will never feel self-pity again, but she’s
not as consumed by it as she was at the beginning of the book.

Q: You have taught children’s literature and Vinnie is an expert on
children’s literature. Why did you choose the same profession for
your character?

AL: I’ve taught folklore and children’s literature, so I didn’t have to
do a lot of research to show Vinnie as an expert in this field. Also it
suited her as I imagined her: someone who had a happy early childhood
and then a miserable adolescence. I have a theory that people
who teach children’s literature tend to have enjoyed being children
and want to continue being children. When Vinnie was little, it didn’t
matter that she was small and plain, because little children don’t care
about that.

Q: When did you start going to England every summer?

AL: In 1970, my first husband had a sabbatical, so we were in England
from January to June of that year, and that’s when I really
started to get to know the place.

Q: And are you as much of an Anglophile as Vinnie?

AL: Almost as much. Although, like her, I sometimes get disillusioned.

Q: What is it that you like about the British?

AL: They read more. They’re better educated. They don’t apologize
for talking about books and art and ideas. Of course, in England I’ve
mostly met literary people, whereas in America I know all kinds of
people, so I may think the English are more educated and intelligent
than they really are. But I do believe they’re more verbal. Their ads,
for example, depend on verbal cleverness and literary reference more
than ours do.
They may not be intrinsically kinder or gentler in England, but
they’re more aware of the rules and more apt to follow them. People
say the English are getting ruder, and they talk about soccer hooligans.
But I haven’t seen that. Not only do people still queue, but if
someone tries to jump the queue everyone else will protest. Americans,
on the other hand, may be more spontaneously helpful than
the English. The English are taught not to get involved with
strangers or invade other people’s privacy. In America, we aren’t al-
ways taught to mind our own business, so people are more likely to
step forward and help.

Q: To me, a central theme of your story has to do with Vinnie becoming
more American.

AL: Yes. She begins by rejecting America. When she gets on the
plane to Britain, she dislikes America. But by the end, she’s fallen in
love with someone who stands for everything she didn’t like about
America. The big moment for her is when she does something frightening
and uncomfortable because she wants to do what Chuck
would have expected of her. His view of her is that she’s an absolutely
wonderful person. She knows she’s not, but she wants to live up to
that view of herself. And by doing this thing, which she doesn’t think
of as very important, she has a tremendous effect on the lives of other
people.

Q: Was Henry James consciously on your mind when you were writing
Foreign Affairs? You cover some of the same territory, such as the
differences between Europeans and Americans.

AL: Oh, certainly. I don’t think you can write a novel like mine without
thinking about James. Of course, James was more concerned
about American innocence and European sophistication. I don’t
think that difference is so great any more. In fact, it may be reversed
in some cases: Some British people come to New York now and feel
like innocents.

Q: Which characters in the book are the most Jamesian?

AL: What’s Jamesian are the situations more than the characters—
the situation with Fred Turner, for example: a very good-looking
young man who comes to London and falls in love with an older
woman. You can’t help but think of The Ambassadors and Chad
Newsome, who goes to Paris and gets involved with Mme de Vionnet,
who likes him for the same reason that my character Rosemary
Radley likes Fred: because he’s young and good-looking and inexpe-
rienced. My character, Chuck Mumpson, is a little bit like Caspar
Goodwood, the noble Midwestern barbarian of The Portrait of a
Lady.
Isabel would have been much better off marrying him instead
of Gilbert Osmond.

Q: Is there any other writer whose influence was important to Foreign
Affairs
? To me, the book is very Austenlike in its texture.

AL: Yes, everybody says that, but I don’t think there’s anyone in it that
is like an Austen character.

Q: Well I can see a remote similarity between Vinnie and Emma, in
that they’re both a little self-satisfied.

AL: Oh, but Vinnie is so unhappy. She is one down at the beginning,
whereas Emma, as we are told in the first sentence, is handsome and
clever and rich. Vinnie is clever, but she’s never been handsome or
rich. She is someone whose personal life has been a failure, and she’s
resigned to putting up with that. The only Austen heroine I can think
of who is disappointed and has given up is Anne Elliot of Persuasion.
But she’s not really like Vinnie, either.

Q: No, I don’t think there is anyone quite like Vinnie. I wasn’t thinking
of Austenlike characters so much as a texture of observation and wit.

AL: Every writer who aspires to write about society and small worlds
wants to be compared to Jane Austen.

Q: Do you believe, as Vinnie does, that English literature is a good
guide to life?

AL: Some books are better guides than others. Jane Austen or even
Anthony Trollope is better as a guide to life than Henry James, for example,
because James suggests that things are not going to work out
and that you almost can’t trust anyone. I’m more optimistic than that.
In James, people don’t usually get a second chance after they mess
up. He is essentially tragic. To me, comedy is essential. If you took all
the comedy out of my books, there wouldn’t be much left. I’m happy
to be called a comic novelist, although it’s perfectly true that if you’re
a tragic novelist, you get more respect and more awards.

Q: Vinnie is fifty-three in the novel. Is this important?

AL: It is important, because it’s an age that women are taught means
their emotional lives are over, and she accepts that. When she gets on
the plane, she’s given up. And there’s that mean review of her work
by L . D. Zimmern, who appears in many of my books, always causing
trouble.

Q: Oh, does he always appear as a troublemaker?

AL:Well, in the beginning he was a troublemaker. In Foreign Affairs,
he’s just very cynical. His attitude toward life is sour. He’s that way because
he was the hero of my first unpublished novel.

Q: So he’s bitter because he never got published?

AL: Right. He never got published, never went before the public as he
hoped. Of course, in my unpublished novel he’s just a young teacher
in a boarding school. But in Foreign Affairs, he’s become a well-known
literary critic and professor. He’s had worldly success but it’s only softened
him a little. When he appears in The Last Resort, a recent book
of mine, he’s retired and famous and has softened quite a bit.

Q: That must be fun, to invent a character and continue to flesh him
out in subsequent novels.

AL: Absolutely. I only wish I’d put him in sooner. He’s not in Love
and Friendship
or The Nowhere City, but after those he appears in
every book.

Q: Roo, Fred Turner’s wife, is Zimmern’s daughter.

AL: Yes; she appears in The War Between the Tates as a child. Fred appears
in Love and Friendship as a child of four. He’s the son of the
heroine of that book, Emily Turner, and his function is to prevent
Emily from getting together with this man she is interested in. It’s fun
to let characters turn up again, and it saves time too, because even
with a minor character or secondary character, you’ve got to know a
lot about them. You have to figure out where they came from, even if
these details don’t show up on the finished page. There are lots of recycled
characters in my work. Chuck’s daughter Barbie turns up later
in The Last Resort, and so does her awful mother.

Q: Which scenes of this novel did you most like to write?

AL: It was all fun. I enjoyed writing the scene where Vinnie is collecting
folk rhymes in the school yard, and she’s so shocked by what
she collects. That’s an issue in the field of children’s literature: Children’s
songs and stories aren’t always as sweet and innocent as some
scholars would like them or expect them to be. And the scene where
Rosemary pretends to be her own cleaning lady—that was fun.

Q: Was there a Chuck Mumpson in your life?

AL: Well, at some very distant remove, Chuck has something to do
with Edward [Alison’s husband]. Not because of his character, but
because in Vinnie’s view, he’s an inappropriate partner. He’s not the
sort of man she can seriously imagine for herself. I name the men she
does sometimes have fantasies about. I made a list of real professors
and writers I knew. They all just loved that. Dan Aaron, Mike
Abrams, Alfred Kazin, Arthur Mizener—they’re the sort of men Vinnie
would have liked to be involved with: older, intellectual, sophisticated.
Not a sanitary engineer from Tulsa in a string tie.

Q: How was Edward inappropriate?

AL: He’s fourteen years younger than me.

Q: Why did Chuck have to die?

AL: Chuck had to die for several reasons. One is that if he hadn’t
known he was seriously ill, he would have gone home, where he had
obligations. A man like Chuck would not hang around England
looking for his ancestors if he were well. But I also think that, even
though they loved each other, it would have been difficult for Chuck
and Vinnie to be together over the long run. What would Chuck do
in a university town?

Q: They probably need sanitary engineers there, too.

AL: They probably do.

Q: We haven’t talked about Rosemary Radley. Do you know any
English actresses?

AL: I’ve met several English actresses. I never got to know any
of them well, but I have met them, and I think there’s a kind of
actress—or actor—who doesn’t have much of a self. They have
a wonderful act, which is maybe bigger than life. They come into a
room and everyone notices them, but they have this emptiness inside.
Some people believe that you need that emptiness in order to
be a great actor. That’s what was said about Laurence Olivier—that
there was nobody there.

Q: Rosemary is really the only English person in the book except
Edwin Francis.

AL: True, there are not many. It would be hard for me to write a
novel with an English hero or heroine. It’s hard to write about people
from another culture unless you’ve spent a lot of time there.

Q: I was thinking of Matchpoint, the Woody Allen movie. The cast
has many English characters and they’re very believable.

AL: But maybe it’s easier in a film where you have English actors. In
fiction, even a really brilliant writer may have trouble with foreigners.
Tony Powell created an American character at the end of A Dance to
the Music of Time
and he sometimes would ask me, or other Americans,
What would he do? What would he wear? And even with our
help, the character wasn’t quite believable, and I can’t say exactly
why. Somehow, he’s not as real as the English characters.

Q: Maybe it’s more difficult when there’s only one and he or she has
to bear the weight of the culture they represent.

AL: That may be true. I think Rosemary and Edwin are believable,
but I don’t go into their minds. I wouldn’t want to try. That’s a difference
between me and Diane Johnson. She lives in France most of
the time, and her daughter has married into a French family. She
feels comfortable writing about French characters in depth.

Q: Did you feel a need to increase the intensity at the end of the
novel?

AL: Well, I like a little melodrama if there’s room for it. I thought,
if Vinnie is going to have an intense experience, Fred should, too.
I didn’t want him to go back to America still in love with Rosemary,
because it would have been hard on his marriage. Luckily,
with people in a book, you can arrange their lives in a way you can’t
in reality.
I think to write fiction you have to have a love of making up
stories and maybe even have an impulse to interfere in people’s lives.
You don’t want to interfere in the lives of your family and friends,
because that’s not right, so you interfere in the lives of imaginary
people.

Awards

Awards

WINNER 1985 Pulitzer Prize
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. This novel suggests that you can expand not only your knowledge
of the world, but also your individual personality, by leaving home.
Do you agree?

2. Vinnie returns to England with certain fixed ideas and illusions
about the country. What are they? Are Vinnie’s ideas about England
proved right or wrong by this trip?

3. Vinnie Miner has never been a physically attractive woman: “Even
as a child she had a nondescript sort of face, which gave the impression
of a small wild rodent: the nose sharp and narrow, the eyes
round and rather too close-set, the mouth a nibbling slit” (p. 10). How
has this affected her life?

4. Fred Turner, unlike Vinnie, is much better-looking than most people.
How do his looks affect his relationships with women? Do you
think that there are disadvantages to being an extremely handsome
man? Is it easier to be a very beautiful woman?

5. Vinnie knows that she suffers from self-pity, which she represents
to herself as an overly affectionate, dirty-white dog she calls Fido,
who is sometimes small and sometimes large. What use is this fantasy
to her? How does the dog represent her emotional state at the beginning
of the novel? At the end?

6. How does Lurie convey the importance of social class in England?
How would you compare class hierarchies in Britain to those in the
U.S.? Is the criteria for high status different in the two countries? What
is most valued in each? Is there a clear social hierarchy at Corinth University?
If so, how would you describe it?

7. What does Vinnie’s career mean to her? Why is she so affected by
the bad review of her work in The Atlantic at the beginning of the
novel? Also consider the scene where Vinnie is gathering rhymes
from the British urchin. Is she making fun of her own field?

8. When Vinnie meets Chuck Mumpson, she does not think much
of him and does not want to see him again. Why does she change her
mind later?

9. Vinnie originally dismisses Chuck’s obsession with genealogy, calling
it “the typical middlebrow, middleclass, nominally democratic
American search for a connection with the British aristocracy” (p. 76).
Does Chuck prove her wrong? Why is his quest so important to him?

10. How does Vinnie Miner change Chuck Mumpson’s life? How
does Chuck change Vinnie’s life?

11. Foreign Affairs was one of the first novels to chronicle the sexual
evolution of a middle-aged woman. How do Vinnie’s feelings about
sex and love change over the course of the novel? How is her age relevant
to these changes?

12. Some critics have said that Foreign Affairs is a modern version of
the old folktale, “The Frog Prince.” In what way might this be true?

13. Lurie counts Henry James and Jane Austen amongst her influences.
What other influences do you see?


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