by Alison Lurie
Random House, 320 pp., $15.95
The ghost of Henry James hovers over this novel and materializes from time to time. “The idea that he has fallen into a Henry James novel occurs to Fred” and to the reader too. The fable is Jamesian: against a background of alluring, repellent London society a sophisticated American learns from an unsophisticated one that, contrary to appearances, true goodness exists and matters more than beauty, wit, or grace. But if the fable is Jamesian, the explicit yet ironic way it is told suggests a much-abbreviated George Eliot; and so does the author’s irrepressible dislike for her attractive anti-heroine, Lady Rosemary Radley, a modern cross between Gwendolen Harleth and Rosamond Vincy.
The first chapter is one of the most captivating in any recent novel I have read. It describes how Vinnie Miner, an Anglophile fifty-four-year-old professor from a large Eastern university boards a charter flight for London where she will spend a semester collecting children’s rhymes for her next book on the subject. Vinnie is not particularly nice and not particularly nasty, just selfish with the peculiar selfishness of the single. Although she has been briefly married, she is regarded by everyone, herself included, as an unattractive spinster. This is not the same as having no sex life: she has quite a lot of that and quite enjoys it. But she knows that no one has ever really loved her. The knowledge has led to chronic self-pity, which she imagines in the shape of an invisible shaggy white dog. It tags after her with imploring eyes and puts its paws in her lap, ready to climb up should the occasion present itself. It follows her onto the plane and Lurie keeps it going throughout the book. This may not sound like a good idea, but it turns out to be one, so vivid is the dogginess of the dog.
Fido alone, however, is not responsible for the brilliant impact of the first chapter. There is also the exact and comical evocation of the horrors of cheap travel and the stratagems with which some of them can be circumvented. Vinnie
elbows her way deftly past less experienced passengers who are searching for their seat numbers or are encumbered with excess luggage or with children, excusing herself in a thin pleasant voice. By crossing through the galley to the far aisle and back again between two rows of seats, she outflanks a massed confusion of obvious rubes with carry-on bags labeled SUN TOURS. In less time than it takes to read this paragraph she has made her way to a window seat near an exit in the nonsmoking section, pausing only to extract the London Times and British Vogue from a magazine rack. (Once the plane is airborne, the stewardess will distribute periodicals to all the passengers but those Vinnie prefers may vanish before they reach her.)
Still, she cannot prevent the seat next to hers being taken by one of the SUN tourists, a beefy, middle-aged sanitary engineer from …