Alison Lurie can make the relationship between a man and a woman sound like the funniest, most improbable endeavor this side of fish riding bicycles. And ever since the smash popularity of The War Between the Tates—Lurie’s with-it comic novel about a college professor and his wife, published in 1974, when Ms. magazine constituted a bible and women’s consciousness-raising groups substituted for prayer sessions—that talent has provided the Cornell University-based writer with a tenured chair as a Major Modern American Woman Author. Lurie won a Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for Foreign Affairs. But during the last 10 years, the author of Love and Friendship and The Nowhere City has published only nonfiction and children’s books. This is nice for fanciers of her writing for kids, The Heavenly Zoo, Clever Gretchen, and Fabulous Beasts. But it’s as a gifted storyteller to adults—an advanced student of domestic drama with a trustworthy alarm system against cultural phoniness—that we need her. My theory is, it’s fiction-muscle cramps from underexercise that keep The Last Resort (Henry Holt, $22) from registering with the kind of power and wit Lurie is capable of. Either that, or the professor has been so preoccupied with children’s literature and specialty studies that she hasn’t been focusing on what the ’90s versions of the Tates are actually warring about nowadays.
The resort of the title signifies in three ways: The vacation town itself is Key West, Fla., where 46-year-old Jenny Walker—a selfless handmaiden of a wife to renowned septuagenarian writer and naturalist Wilkie Walker—has convinced her severely crotchety husband that they should settle for a spell, hoping the escape from wintry New England will thaw the icy withdrawal that has overtaken her man. Thus, hers is a last-resort action, too; she’s at the end of her long, saintly tether. What Jenny doesn’t know is that Wilkie, depressed because he has convinced himself he’s dying of cancer, has decided as a last resort to commit suicide, beachily, by drowning in a “swimming accident.”
A change of venue (to a geography the author knows well, since her biographical blurb notes that she “divides her time between Ithaca, Key West, and London”) brings with it a collection of broadly drawn local characters whose quirks and passions are Lurie’s platforms for social commentary. The attentions of an attractive lesbian therapist-turned-guesthouse owner (she gave up on psychology after she realized that “half the time she was helping people she didn’t like to become strong and confident enough to do things she didn’t like”) arouse in Jenny a “sensual attraction to another person of her own sex,” and feelings of love she hadn’t felt for Wilkie in a long time. A gay gardener has to cope with AIDS, as well as with his family’s response to his illness, which, depending on the relative, runs a continuum from enlightened to Neanderthal. The gardener’s unhappily married cousin, casting around for a purpose in life, develops a passionate interest in saving manatees. And meanwhile the aging naturalist contemplates mortality while flubbing chances to do himself in.
Lurie moves her players around with the kind of giant board-game steps that make for a fine summer novel: Subtlety isn’t the point here; amusing scenes like the one where a boorish restaurant customer pitches a fit are. But there’s a smudge at the center of The Last Resort where a fully drawn Lurie character is needed: Jenny Walker is more child than adult, more Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House than the kind of compassionate, competent, sexual, fortysomething woman who would inspire the love of a famous author and a wise lesbian. “If I’m not working with Wilkie,” she worries, “what am I supposed to do? I won’t know what to do. I won’t even know who I am.”
How has this pre-Ms. woman survived so long in the post-Ms. ’90s? Hasn’t she read The War Between the Tates? We never do find out who Jenny is when she’s not being somebody for somebody else. We do get Lurie’s point, though, that the search for self-knowledge (for individuals, for couples, for families) should be a priority of first resort. B-
The Last Resort