For her nuanced understanding and lifelike portrayal of social customs and the relationships between the sexes, Lurie is widely regarded as the Jane Austen of contemporary American letters. Over the course of ten novels and half a century she has held a mirror up to people of her own generation as they navigate their lives.
Born in Chicago in 1926, Lurie grew up in White Plains, New York. She attended Radcliffe College, graduating in 1946 with a B.A. in literature and history. Lurie married in 1948 and spent much of the next decade and a half raising three sons and keeping a home. While her husband pursued his doctorate in English literature at Harvard, she helped found the influential Cambridge literary group, the Poets’ Theater. She also wrote short stories and novels, but received numerous rejection slips before publishing her first novel Love and Friendship in 1962, at the age of 34.
Love and Friendship established the world that Lurie’s fiction would inhabit for decades to come: the social environment of men and women living in the orbit of a prestigious college campus, their intellectual pretensions, romantic entanglements, personal blunders and hard-earned wisdom. The book’s title, borrowed from a novel by Jane Austen, acknowledges Austen’s influence and announces Lurie’s intention to apply Austen’s trademark genre, the “comedy of manners,” to modern life.
In the mid-1960s, Lurie received fellowships to work on her writing at the Yaddo artists’ community in Saratoga Springs, a setting later fictionalized to comic effect in her fifth novel, Real People (1969). The London Times reviewer called the book, “Dazzlingly comic. . . . a superb piece of ironic portraiture.”
Lurie’s 1974 novel, The War Between the Tates, established her reputation as a major observer in fiction of the American experience during an era of rapid cultural change. Set at “Corinth University” (a fictional Cornell in many of her books) during the Vietnam War period, the novel follows the experiences of a professor and his wife as their family is torn apart by midlife crises, experimental lifestyles, generational conflicts and battles between the sexes. In a contemporary New York Times book review, Sara Sanborn hailed it as a classic of its time and place, “a novel not only to read, but to reread for its cool and revealing mastery of a social epoch… a near-perfect comedy of manners and morals to put on the shelf next to Vanity Fair or
Lurie received the Pulitzer Prize for her 1984 novel, Foreign Affairs, the story of two American scholars and their separate adventures during a semester abroad in London. Writing in the BBC magazine, The Listener, Gabriele Annan said that the novel’s construction “is so neat, so ingenious and satisfying, with no loose ends anywhere, that you barely notice its two stories operating on different levels of truth and entertainment.” The book was adapted as a 1993 NBC television movie starring Joanne Woodward and Brian Dennehy.
Returning to the setting of “Corinth University,” Lurie’s tenth and most recent book, Truth and Consequences (2005), is the tragicomical tale of a marriage in collapse. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Cathleen Schine said “[In] Alison Lurie's delightful new novel, middle age is a deep, dark forest full of howling wolves, wicked spells, ogres and witches, castles and enchanted gardens.... Her characters are, as always, wonderfully imperfect.”
As a teacher of writing at Cornell for three decades, Lurie was generous in giving her time and knowledge to new generations of aspiring writers. Short story author (and Glens Falls native) Lorrie Moore, a former student, told the Cornell Chronicle, “She was wise, patient and astute. I found myself writing for her, towards her, because of her. She also was supportive and appreciative in a manner that could send you off feeling high as a kite. I would not have become a writer without her.”
Lurie is also a pioneering champion of children’s literature and has written both children’s books and scholarly nonfiction on the importance to global literacy and culture of children’s literature.
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.