Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist, children’s book author, and cultural observer Lurie (Emerita, English/Cornell Univ.; The Language of Houses: How Buildings Speak to Us, 2014, etc.) offers a personal perspective on literature, feminism, fashion, and treasured friendships.
Although a few of the essays—e.g., on women’s decisions to change their surnames after marriage, the meaning of aprons, or fashion’s arcane rules—seem dated and others rather slight, most are engaging. Among the liveliest are the author’s recollections of friendships with editor Barbara Epstein, writer and artist Edward Gorey, and poet James Merrill. Lurie met Epstein when both were students at Radcliffe—in the 1940s, Radcliffe women were “poor relations” compared to Harvard men, Lurie recalls in “Their Harvard”—and was impressed at once by her “quiet, often almost invisible brilliance” and her capacious reading. When Epstein became editor at the New York Review of Books, Lurie relied gratefully on both her editorial skill and “remarkable” tact. Also remembered with affection is the “immensely intelligent, perceptive, amusing, inventive, skeptical,” and “scarily gifted artist” Gorey, whom Lurie first met at a quirky bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They took excursions to make tombstone rubbings, were involved in the Poets’ Theatre of Cambridge, and, later, when both lived in Manhattan, became best friends. Gorey was inspired to write The Doubtful Guest by Lurie’s offhand comment that having a young child around all the time “was like having a houseguest who never said anything and never left.” Equally warm is Lurie’s portrait of Merrill, whom she admired for “how intensely aware he was of language, even in the most casual and banal circumstances.” One of the longest, and most captivating, essays, “What Happened in Hamlet,” recounts Lurie’s experience watching a month of rehearsals as Jonathan Miller directed the play in 1974, with Irene Worth as Gertrude and Peter Eyre as the beleaguered prince. Worth, Lurie writes, even offstage, emoted as if she had an audience of 500. Musings on “Pinocchio,” the Babar tales, Harry Potter, and “Rapunzel” stand out among essays on children’s books.
An appealing miscellany.