The War Between the Tates
by Alison Lurie
Random House, 372 pp., $6.95
Truman Capote, on the back of The War Between the Tates, says Jane Austen would enjoy this novel; the author, Alison Lurie, is called the Queen Herod of modern fiction by Gore Vidal, and the wisest woman in America by James Merrill. Which is the kind of press Lurie has been getting for a decade. Yet if the suggestion is that her work is spicy, wicked, wise in a feline way, it is really the wrong suggestion. The War Between the Tates is Alison Lurie’s fifth novel, her longest and most ambitious, yet it is a sober, witty, modest book, like all her others, better perhaps, very touching in places, no “break-through,” for her or for fiction.
As a working answer to the question of Lurie’s curious reputation, let’s say that at a time when most novels are whole cloth, verve and swagger, people get starved for cool, observant, realistic fiction, and are delighted to read something like this:
The fact that she hates her own children is her darkest, most carefully guarded secret. Even to Danielle she has never fully revealed it. In public she speaks of them as everyone else does, with proud concern or humorous mock despair. Her acquaintances protest that on the contrary they have always found Jeffrey and Matilda most polite (as apparently they can sometimes pretend to be). Then, in a light, humorous tone, they complain amusingly of John’s room or Jerry’s attitude toward homework, which makes Erica wonder if they too might be harboring monstrous lodgers. When Susan says, smiling, that her children are “quite dreadful,” does she mean in reality that she dreads them? When Jane exclaims that her daughter is “hopeless,” has she indeed lost hope?
Lives of quiet, bourgeois desperation, accurately observed in prose a little brisker and more clever than most realistic fiction. It is, of course, not wickedness or wisdom we find here, but insistent penetrating glances.
Give such a writer a small academic community and she will succeed by means of her quickness, her efficiency, her lightness of touch, with lots of subjects that others manage only with ponderousness or self-regarding wit: The Department, The Book, The Cocktail Party, the Young, both children and students. In The War Between the Tates Lurie cheerfully takes on the standard plot—an ambitious professor, his well-educated wife, their domestic boredom and strain, a student mistress for the husband, futile attempts at retaliation and freedom by the wife, and whenever these figures and actions move into the surrounding community, we have clarity and brightness where others usually have managed murky expositions and cute tricks. The Department is brought to workable life in a dozen pages. The incursions of expensive tract houses into the neighborhood of the Tates’ once isolated remodeled older home is done well in a few paragraphs. Late in the book there is a sequence worth the price of admission, back-to-back parties where we see the newly separated wife painfully trying to make her …