Foreign Affairs Earns Novelist Alison Lurie Domestic Acclaim and a Place Beside Henry James

updated 12/03/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/03/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

On a brisk, late fall day the gray-haired lady in the bright red Toyota maneuvered purposefully around the college town of Ithaca, N.Y. As she made her early-morning rounds, Alison Lurie looked like any other middle-aged housewife cutting through the underbrush of daily chores, the supermarket and the cheese store, where she hurried in for Wisconsin cheddar. But beneath Lurie's plain-Jane appearance and no-nonsense manner lurks one of the most penetrating, sensitive writers at work today.

Only three years ago Lurie showed off her talents with The Language of Clothes, a razor-sharp analysis of the sociological implications of fashion. Now she's back with her seventh, and probably best, novel, Foreign Affairs (Random House, $15.95), which was nominated for an American Book Award. Lurie's book has also received unabashed praise from a distinguished peer, John (The French Lieutenant's Woman) Fowles. "Foreign Affairs," he proclaims, "earns the same shelf as Henry James and Edith Wharton."

Like James and Wharton, Lurie is a devoted Anglophile, and it's no accident that Vinnie Miner, her 54-year-old protagonist, bears a more than passing resemblance to the author. Tart-tongued Vinnie, who has been awarded a grant to research children's folk rhymes in England, is a tenured professor at Corinth University in upstate New York. At Cornell University Lurie, 57, teaches creative writing and children's literature. "In all my novels," Lurie admits, "the heroine has something in common with me, but none of them are me."

Foreign Affairs deftly breaks down the convention that nothing happens to women over 50. "There was Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea," says Lurie, "but there hasn't been any Old Woman and the Sea." To rectify that, Lurie plunges Vinnie reluctantly—and later wholeheartedly—into an incongruous affair with a rough-hewn Oklahoman, the type that gives American tourists a bad name.

Lurie's literary inventiveness developed early. Her father, director of the Council of Jewish Federations, raised his family in White Plains, N.Y., where Alison was a prolific writer of verse and stories. From her mother, a journalist, and from her teachers, Alison received lavish praise for her little creations. In some measure this was to make her feel better about her odd looks. At birth Alison had been delivered with forceps, a trauma that left her deaf in her left ear and caused her facial muscles to atrophy and twist her mouth sideways when she spoke. Despite her affliction, Alison remembers a basically happy childhood. "It wasn't until I hit junior high that I had the idea that I was funny looking and might never get married," she recalls, "but it didn't weigh on me."

After graduating from a progressive boarding school in Connecticut, Lurie headed to Radcliffe where she majored in history and literature and fell in love with a Harvard student, Jonathan Bishop, whom she married in 1948. While he taught English at various colleges, Alison led the life of a young academic wife and mother and raised their sons, John, now 31, Jeremy, 29, and Joshua, 24. Although Lurie had begun to publish short stories while she was still at Radcliffe, during the first 14 years of her marriage the rejection slips piled up with alarming consistency. Still, Lurie stuck to her craft. Two early novels, one set in a boarding school, the other about young Americans in Europe, were turned down by publishers. "The attitude of my friends and family was, 'It's too bad Alison is exhausting herself trying to do this thing. She is obviously not very well equipped. Why doesn't she give up?' But I had already decided that I would go on even if I were never published. My life felt empty if I wasn't writing."

Finally in 1962 there was cause for rejoicing when Macmillan accepted a novel called Love and Friendship. There then followed, in comforting succession, The Nowhere City, Imaginary Friends and Real People. But Lurie didn't really make a name for herself until 1974, when she published The War Between the Tates, a novel about a collapsing marriage of the '60s. It was her first commercial success. She was by then 47. "It's a different thing entirely to be recognized in your 40s and not in your 20s," she says. "By then you've made your life and you're not so influenced by the media image of who you are."

With maturity and success came a new relationship. Separated from Bishop since 1975, Lurie started seeing novelist Edward Hower in 1976; they now share her house in Ithaca. "I didn't think that anybody would ever come into my life whom I would care about seriously again," says Lurie. "That was partly because of my age."

At the end of January Lurie, who is on a half-year teaching schedule at Cornell, heads to London for her annual English fix. There, she goes to tea with Lady Antonia Fraser, Jonathan Miller and Margaret Drabble. Then, as she does every February, like a punctual bird heading south for the winter, Lurie will settle down in her Key West cottage for a few months of undisturbed writing.

Despite the lulling tropical air, the tough-minded Lurie keeps to a tidy schedule. Every morning she unplugs her phone and works at a small table in her bedroom. She never writes outdoors on the deck because distracting shadows from the palm trees wobble on the typewriter paper.

With February nearing, Lurie is pondering her next writing project. "I'm not sure what it will be," she says. "Maybe I will write a novel or some essays. You just can't tell what will happen." Whatever Lurie does, she knows she'll enjoy it. "I find writing great fun, though I know you're not supposed to say that. You're supposed to suffer." Interjects Edward swiftly: "Say you suffer. You'll sell more books."

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