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Alison Lurie: The War between the Tates

Lurie’s best-known and most successful novel is about marriage. The Tates – Erica and Brian – are the parents of two fairly obnoxious and difficult teenagers, fifteen-year old Jeffrey and thirteen-year old Matilda. Brian is a political science professor at a university that may well be based on Lurie’s own university, Cornell. He is ambitious but has not achieved what he thinks he deserves to have achieved (namely, being Dean), which he puts down to the fact that he is only five feet five. He is also working on a book on US foreign policy, which is going to be the definitive work on the subject. Erica does not work because Brian disapproves of her working. It is set during the Vietnam War, with unrest on the campus of Brian’s university over US involvement in Vietnam. Brian has an affair with Wendy Gahaghan, a graduate student, who takes some of his classes but is not in his department. Brian has decided to end things with Wendy (though not for the first time) and, when he tells her, she writes him a letter, notable for its awkward grammar and use of an abundance of Sixties expressions, in which she agrees to go away but also tells him that she is pregnant. (Brian had thought that she was on the pill.)

In the meantime, Erica has suspected that her husband was having an affair – his new moustache was one of the clues but she also reads the letters Wendy sends Brian to their house. Wendy now goes to Erica to apologise, before leaving town. Erica, sympathetic to Wendy’s plight (she thinks that Wendy is going to have an illegal abortion in New Jersey) throws Brian out and Wendy moves in, with Erica looking after her, though she ends up having an abortion. But Lurie skillfully spins this out, with Erica having a not very satisfactory affair and Brian getting Wendy pregnant again. The book ends with an anti-Vietnam War march and tentative moves for Brian and Erica to get back together, while Wendy goes off to a commune, with the baby.

Lurie spins a very clever tale of a marriage dissolving but then, instead of totally falling part, maybe coming back together. All the characters – Brian, Erica, their children, Wendy and the various other characters – are all slightly exaggerated in their foibles but not too much, so that they remain more or less convincing, the sort you dread meeting but sometimes do. She is always one step ahead of them, so we can laugh at their errors and character defects but also be somewhat wary that, just maybe, this could be real.

Publishing history

First published 1974 by Random House