Home > 1980, 20th Century, American Literature, Lurie Alison, Novel > Changeable Spring and Indian Summer in London: the review

Changeable Spring and Indian Summer in London: the review

Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie. 1984.

“The heart has its reasons that reason ignores.” Blaise Pascal.

Vinnie Miner is a fifty-four year old, petite, gray haired, plain, single literature teacher. She teaches Children’s Literature in Corinth University, New England. She just got a foundation grant to spend six months in London to study the folk-rhymes of school children and compare them to their American equivalents. When the book opens, she’s settling on her plane to London and prepares for her flight. Vinnie has an imaginary dog named Fido which represents her self-pity.

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.

Vinnie Miner is Anglophile and she can’t wait staying in London once more. She feels better when she’s abroad because Fido is under good check and she can leave behind her usual self. Chuck Mumpson, an average American from Tulsa sits by her. He’s on a fifteen days tour in Europe. He breaks into her privacy and start talking to her. She responds with as short phrases as politeness allows and here is how Vinnie feels about the intruder:

She wonders why citizens of the United States who have nothing in common and will never see one another again feel it necessary to exchange such information. It can only clog up their brain cells with useless data, and is moreover often invidious, tending to estrange casual acquaintances.[…] In the British Isles, on the other hand, the anonymity of travelers is preserved. If strangers who find themselves sharing a railway compartment converse, it will be on topics of general interest, and usually without revealing their origin, destination, occupation, or name.

Meanwhile, we get to know Fred Turner. He’s  a 29, heartbreakingly handsome, married literature teacher in Corinth University. He just won a grant to spend six months in London and write a book about John Gay. Fred’s wife Ruth was supposed to accompany him but they had a terrible fight just before his departure and she stayed behind. (I won’t say what she did to upset him, it’s too funny). So he feels terrible and is not so excited about living in London.

On her side, Vinnie Miner feels good. She’s in London, in a British flat, among her British friends, working in British libraries. Unlike Vinnie’s, Fred’s first weeks in London are miserable. He misses his wife and tries to cope with being single again. His wages aren’t high enough for him to enjoy London now that he lacks Ruth’s income. He hates the British Library. He pays regular visits to American friends who hate London too and mopes with them. They try to convince him that Ruth wasn’t the right woman for him. They mean to help him but Fred realises that “When things have gone wrong it is no consolation to hear that your friends expected it all along and could have told you so if they hadn’t been so polite.”

When Vinnie realises that Fred is unwell, she invites him to a party she’s giving for her English friends. There he meets Rosemary, a British actress and they soon start an affair. Rosemary is older than him, beautiful, fairy, unpredictable and unbalanced. On the other side, Vinnie runs into Chuck again and starts a friendship with him, a bit against her will. As you imagine,  Foreign Affair will be the interlaced adventures of Fred and Vinnie in England and I won’t tell more about the plot.

Fred and Vinnie are like a pair of scissors. They are bound by the Literature Department in Corinth University. As they cut through their life in London, some events bring them together, some separate them. Vinnie feels responsible for Fred in spite of her. As a fellow American and as a more experienced colleague, she finds herself paying attention to him whereas she wouldn’t have at home. She is led by the hand of duty, pride – He represents Corinth University, he must behave – and sympathy too. He could be her son; I thought she acted like a mother figure sometimes.

Alison Lurie explores several topics through her tale. The most important one I think is the impact of beauty on people’s lives. Vinnie is described as plain and Fred as beautiful. Vinnie resents her lack of beauty whereas Fred doesn’t consciously take advantage of it but sometimes thinks it doesn’t make his life easier. In The Elementary Particles, Michel Houellebecq states:

Sans la beauté, la jeune fille est malheureuse, car elle perd toute chance d’être aimée. Personne à vrai dire ne s’en moque ni ne la traite avec cruauté mais elle est comme transparente, aucun regard n’accompagne ses pas. Chacun se sent gêné en sa présence et préfère l’ignorer. Without beauty, the young girl is miserable because she loses any chance to be loved. Nobody mocks her or treats her with cruelty but she is transparent, no look follows her footsteps. Everyone feels ill at ease in her presence and would rather ignore her.

Somehow, that’s what happened to Vinnie and she never recovered from it. Her childhood ended when she became aware of it. She deducted that she’s too plain to be loved and has built walls around her to protect her from actually truly loving anyone. She expects to be dumped so she doesn’t let anyone the opportunity to do it and leaves first. Her life is full of soothing rituals supposed to bring her safety but her orderly life is artificial. She fills her life with activities but doesn’t really live it.

Fred is too handsome for his own good. He is propositioned all the time and can’t be as friendly with his students as he’d wish to. Indeed, as he’s young and attractive, he ends up being chased by grapes of female students. He dresses seriously not to look too young. His beauty prevents him from enjoying his job as much as he could. When his wife leaves him, he’s lost. He never had to work to win a woman’s attention. To be honest, I felt little empathy for the trials and tribulations of Fred’s love life and he sounded a little too spoiled. I thought his voice was less convincing than Vinnie’s. Even when he feels pretty low, he has an ingrained self confidence and optimism which help him recover. He’s young, handsome, and successful; his present miseries can only end soon. Really I can’t pity beautiful people.

I loved Vinnie Miner despite her flaws and her apparent coldness. She has a very disillusioned vision of her possibilities in life:

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.

I felt her fragility under her protective shell and I watched her improve as her wall of self preservation crumbles. At 54, Vinnie has decided she’s old now. Too old to dye her hair and dress nicely. Too old for sex. Too old for love and relationships. Too old for any life outside work and work related activities such as lectures, art and theatre. She has a terribly self depreciating vision of herself. Alison Lurie is a teacher of Children’s Literature in Cornell University. She was 58 when Foreign Affairs was published and was separated from her husband at the time. Is her analysis of over-50 “love market” a first hand experience?

I felt tenderness for Chuck. He’s the caricature of the American middleman from the South. He’s huge, wears cowboy outfits with a leather tie, a plastic raincoat, speaks with a terrible accent and sprinkles his phrases with grammar mistakes. In other words, he’s the exact opposite to Vinnie’s acquaintances. But he’s also a decent man who disregards appearances. He’s not impressed by people’s wealth or by London’s glorious past.

In Chuck’s opinion, London isn’t much of a place. He doesn’t mind the weather: “Nah. I like the variety. Back home it’s the same goddamn thing every day. And if you don’t water, the earth dries up hard as rock. When I first got here I couldn’t get over how damn green England is, like one of those travel posters.” On the other hand, he complains, the beds in his hotel are lumpy and the supply of hot water limited. English food tastes like boiled hay; if you want a half-decent meal, you have to go to some foreign restaurant. The traffic is nuts, everybody driving on the wrong side of the road; and he has a hell of a time understanding the natives, who talk English real funny. Vinnie is about to correct his linguistic error rather irritably and suggest that it is in fact we Americans who talk funny, when their tea arrives, creating a diversion.

Apart from Vinnie and Fred’s love lives and how beauty impacted their self-confidence, this novel is also about cultural differences between American and English upper classes. Here is Fred’s first steps in British parties:

She had asked him where he was living; that was a good sign, he had thought, not having yet learnt that in England such inquiries don’t precede or hint at an invitation, but rather serve to determine social class; they are the equivalent of the American question “What do you do?”

People are all friendliness and politeness but it is mere hypocrisy. The friendliness disappears at the first wind of change. I’m not British and I don’t like to generalize but I have to admit it reminded me of Nick’s misadventures (The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst) and of the way Linley treats and hurts Barbara Havers in What came before he shot her by Elizabeth George.

There are also interesting thoughts about the influence of novels on people’s vision of love relationships. I’ll try to post about it later, if I can find the time. It echoes Notes on a Love Story by Philip Langeskov that I reviewed in The Best British Short Stories 2011. It had already left me thinking.

I’m fond of books in university settings, they sound so exotic to me. Usually they’re about literature teachers; I don’t recall reading one with a science teacher, except Rebecca Connell. Are they like their writers? The only thing that bothered me in this book was the parallels Fred could make between his life and John Gay’s literature. I’ve never read John Gay – and I dare think I’m not the only one – I felt confused or left apart as if the character and its author were whispering secrets I couldn’t hear. This was a minor flaw, though. I loved this book; it made me stay up late on a working night to finish it. It had been a long time since my last Alison Lurie and I had forgotten how sensitive, subtle and lucid she can be.  

PS : Summer quizz: now try to reconcile the characters mentioned in the review with the one on the drawing in the teaser post!

 

  1. July 26, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    I always find people are biased when it comes to beauty, they pity the ugly but never the beautiful. It seems as only “having too little of something” should be a problem. Having too much can really be a problem as well. I personally have a problem with narcissistic people but think there are as many among the good looking as there are among the bad looking. Still, to suffer from being too beautiful is nicer than to suffer from being ugly. Now that you mentioned this Houellebecq quote I remember that he attached a huge importance to looks.
    I have one Alison Lurie book that a friend gave me after she read it and said it was very good. It is The Truth about Lorin Jones”. I haven’t read it, it seems I should. For weird reasons I thought Alison Luirie was a man writing spy novels.
    I’d like to read this one for the part on the influence of novels. I’m never sure whether I like books set at universities or not. Most of those I read were satirical. Have you read Lucky Jim? I just got it.

    Like

    • July 26, 2011 at 7:17 pm

      I can tell that you really liked this one through the way you discussed the characters. This was my first Lurie novel, and as I’ve said before, Truth or Conseqences came next. Another academic novel. I liked it when I read it, but over time, I find myself remembering it a great deal.

      It’s clever, I think, the way Lurie contrasts young love to mature love.

      I have a weakness for academic settings too. Lucky Jim is very very funny.

      Like

      • July 26, 2011 at 11:07 pm

        You’re right, when I like a book I’m a lot more tempted to write about the characters.
        I’ve read and I recommend Real People, The War Between the Tates and Only Children.
        I’ll check out Truth and Consequences and Lucky Jim.

        “mature love” was a new topic in 1984, no? It’s more common now with the divorce rate explosion and people ageing better than before.

        Like

    • July 26, 2011 at 11:01 pm

      Considering how society works and the importance of looks, nothing can make me feel sorry for poor beautiful people who suffer from too many propositions. Sorry, I can’t. I think they can live with the inconvenience given the advantages beauty brings.

      Who wrote Lucky Jim?

      Like

      • July 27, 2011 at 5:37 am

        Jealousy can ruin your life, you, know, being first and always seen as a body/face, can ruin your life, always thinking twice whether you smile at someone. …. It’s endless.
        Kingsley Amis.

        Like

  2. July 26, 2011 at 8:20 pm

    I loved this book – it was my first Alison Lurie novel, too, and afterwards I read everything she’d ever written. I just wish she’d publish a new novel! But your review reminds me I could easily reread this one. It was a delight.

    Like

    • July 26, 2011 at 10:43 pm

      I agree. The review makes me think I need to reread Lurie soon too.

      Like

      • July 26, 2011 at 11:11 pm

        Thanks to you two. It’s the best compliment you can make about a review.

        Like

    • July 26, 2011 at 11:08 pm

      I’ll be interested to read your review if you re-read it.

      Like

  3. July 27, 2011 at 5:27 am

    Lucky Jim was written by Kingsley Amis, father of Martin Amis.

    Like

    • July 27, 2011 at 6:30 am

      thanks, I’ll add it to my wish list

      Like

      • July 27, 2011 at 5:37 pm

        I think it’s a book you’d really like a lot.

        Like

        • July 28, 2011 at 7:46 am

          The only question left is “Shall I read it in French or in English?” So I downloaded a sample to see if the father is as difficult to read as the son but most of the sample consists in David Lodge’s foreword to the book. *Sigh* From the few pages I’ve seen, I think I can read it in English.

          Like

  4. August 22, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    A very nice review. What prompted you to read this one? How did you come across it?

    The only Kingsly Amis I’ve read is a non-fiction book he did on science fiction. He never wrote any, and oddly has a reputation for having hated it, but in fact he was a massive fan and wrote the best book on it I’ve read. Going on that he could certainly turn a sentence and I’ve heard his fiction is very good indeed.

    Like

    • August 22, 2011 at 8:34 pm

      Guy recommended it to me and I had enjoyed the Alison Lurie I had read. That was enough to read it.

      Like

  1. January 1, 2012 at 1:09 am
  2. June 13, 2013 at 2:06 am

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