FOREIGN AFFAIRS by Alison Lurie

FOREIGN AFFAIRS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Two odd-couple romances for American academics in London--one modestly charming, one tiresome, both of them served up in Lurie's sweetly acerbic, literate, faintly precious prose. Bird-faced professor Vinnie Miner, 54, a children's-lit expert from a Cornell-like university, is off to London for six months of research into playground rhymes; and, while spinster Vinnie has had a surprisingly active (if defensively casual) sex life, she now feels that ""it is time to steer past the Scylla and Charybdis of elderly sexual farce and sexual tragedy into the wide, calm sunset sea of abstinence. . . ."" Furthermore, she virtually never beds abroad. This time, however, Vinnie finds herself crossing paths repeatedly with the most unlikely suitor imaginable: Chuck Mumpson, a polyester/cowboy-hat tourist from Oklahoma. Chuck, 57, an unwelcome plane-trip acquaintance, is a ""large stupid semiliterate man""--who nonetheless eventually wins Vinnie over with his secret woes (forced early retirement, an unloving family), his down-home wisdom, and--above all--his genuine regard for Vinnie, who ""has taught herself in over thirty years of loss and disappointment, that no man will ever really care for her."" So a few outings ensue, with Vinnie introducing Chuck to culture; a few amorous nights ensue too, with Chuck ""wonderful in bed."" But Vinnie remains defensive in love, and snobbish about Chuck's vulgarity--till she realizes her mistake. . . too late (an O. Henry-maudlin twist). Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, gorgeously handsome Fred Turner, Vinnie's young English Dept. colleague, also arrives in London, researching a book on John Gay and nursing his wounds after a break with earthy (too earthy for Fred, it seems) wife Roo, a kinky photographer. So Fred is ripe to fall head over heels in love with elegant, aging London actress Rosemary--but, all too predictably, disillusionments follow when he becomes ""emotionally and physically obsessed"": he's shocked by her posh circle's sexual looseness; he eventually discovers that his love-goddess is desperately possessive, childish, perhaps even psychotic. And, despite heavy allusions to Henry James, this shallow American's awakening is unconvincing, formulaic stuff, while the Vinnie/Chuck affair sometimes seems more sit-com-like (remember A Majority of One?) than either Jamesian or even Barbara-Pym-ian. The result, then, is a very uneven entertainment--laced with tinny sentimentality, lacking the social bite of War Between the Tates, seemingly pieced together from two short-story subjects. (There's a feeble, contrived effort at linking the plots here and there.) But Vinnie's an appealing, self-deprecating sort; the high-toned backgrounds are nicely sketched; and Lurie's prose--though marred by cutesiness and strained aphorisms (""one might get tired of striking, continual beauty after a while, just as one might get tired of being struck continually"")--is bright and dry almost all the way through.

Pub Date: Sept. 27th, 1984
ISBN: 0812976312
Publisher: Random House