|Aug/Sep 1998 Book Reviews|
Random House, 1998 321pp
This is Alison Lurie's first novel for ten years, but she has not lost her touch. All that has happened is that her characters, like many of her readers, are ten years older. They now have grown-up children, a different perspective on life, and new, and not always comforting, prospects before them.
Lurie is as acute as ever in her observation of human nature. We recognise her characters as particular "sorts" of people whose behaviour we think we can predict. They are almost, but never quite, stereotypes, and half the pleasure of Lurie's novels is in being allowed to play amateur psychologist, share her characters' thoughts, and see how illogical people can be.
Wilkie Walker [not a very inspiring name] is a successful environmental scientist, and a world-famous writer and naturalist. Wilkie is seventy and no longer "flavour of the month", as his new, young lecture agent brashly tells him. Wilkie's friends and contemporaries are mostly retired or dead, and Wilkie thinks he has bowel cancer.
Jennie, Wilkie's wife of twenty-five years, is forty-six. She is used to being regarded as a "walking anachronism", and being patronised or attacked by feminists, because she has happily devoted her life to looking after Wilkie and helping him with his work. She loves Wilkie and he, in turn, is devoted to her and shares all his thoughts with her. But Wilkie does not tell her about his health problem, and he resolves to commit suicide before his condition becomes a painful burden to both of them. This secret changes him, and Jennie suddenly finds that Wilkie is acting strangely. He hardly speaks to her and she has no idea what can be wrong.
The idea of a short holiday in Key West, Florida, appeals to both Jennie and Wilkie for different reasons. Jennie hopes it will change Wilkie's strange behaviour. Wilkie thinks it might be a suitable place to pre-empt a future of pain by arranging a tragic "accidental" drowning.
Key West, as a tropical holiday-resort and tax-haven "full of interesting characters and on-going soap-operas" is the sort of place where Lurie's middle-class characters like to winter. Lurie enjoys herself with snap-shots of its transient visitors, and with more detailed pictures of a few of the long-term residents who become entangled in the Walkers' lives.
Lee Weiss (formerly Weissmann), for example, is in her early fifties and has changed her lifestyle along with her name. She abandoned a career as a therapist when she realised she was helping people whose values she despised to become "strong and confident", and now she runs a guest house for women. Lee is warm, caring, attractive, and frankly lesbian. Jacko, is a sort of male version of Lee - amiable, good-looking, gay, and not overburdened by the accidental discovery that he is HIV positive. Both Lee and Jacko, and an assortment of their friends and relatives, become involved in the Walkers' lives, variously irritating, loving, befriending and saving them.
Several of Wilkie's carefully planned last swims are annoyingly thwarted by the locals; he is an involuntary participant in the suicide of one long-term resident; and his own final crisis is ironically unplanned. Jennie, meanwhile, has become close friends with Lee. The story ends neatly but nothing is cut-and-dried, Lurie is too subtle a story-teller for that, and this novel is, as usual, funny, quick-witted, and enjoyably easy to read.