On a recent transatlantic flight, I read Alison Lurie’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Foreign Affairs (Random House, 1984). Although it’s been out for more than thirty years, I found it on a daily Amazon deal a while back and thought it looked like something I’d like: complicated stories of American expats in London.
And it certainly lived up to my expectations. I’d also brought a Paris memoir to read on my trip, but that book left me feeling like I’d wasted five hours of my life (I have a hard time abandoning books once I start them). So I was happy to turn to Foreign Affairs on a 10-hour flight and enjoyed it so much that I read straight through and finished about five minutes before landing.
The story is set in the mid-1980s, but you wouldn’t know it apart from the fact that no one has cell phones. Two English professors from an update NY university that’s supposed to be Cornell (where Lurie also taught in English department for many years) are on sabbatical in London. Virginia is known as Vinnie and is a 50-year-old “plain” woman who feels more alive and at home in London than back in the US. Fred, on the other hand, is a twenty-something wunderkind who has both the looks and the smarts that have made his life relatively easy up to the time we meet him in London.
Vinnie and Fred don’t know each other well. Back in Corinth, NY (site of the the fake Ivy League school) they don’t move in the same circles. Fred is married to a younger Jewish woman from whom he became estranged before he moved to London. His friends in London advise him to move on and forget his wife (too emotional, too loud, too Jewish). So when Vinnie feels obliged to invite Fred to a party she hosts at the start of their sabbaticals, Fred doesn’t shy away from starlet Lady Rosemary Radley, a larger than life actress who always has an entourage around her.
On Vinnie’s flight to London, she sits next to a towering man from Oklahoma named Chuck. Chuck is in his late 50s, so several years older than Vinnie. He’s also married and on a package tour (something Vinnie would never do) for a couple weeks while his wife remains at home to work in her booming real estate practice. Vinnie looks down on people like Chuck who epitomize the worst American stereotypes–loud, uneducated, not well-read, not well-traveled.
But life is never what it seems and Vinnie and Chuck develop one of the loveliest relationships I’ve come across in literature. Fred, on the other hand, seems to be on the fast-track to a love affair noted in the celebrity magazines. And he is until it all comes crashing down in a creepy and thrilling way I won’t spoil here.
I really enjoyed this book for its wit and social commentary on the differences between American and British society especially when it comes to relationships. Foreign Affairs is an intelligent work of literary fiction that’s perfect for summer reading–including a long-haul flight.