Vinnie Miner is an American professor living in London for six months to work on her new book of children’s rhymes. She was never considered attractive when she was growing up, a fact that she made her peace with over the years. Instead, she focused on cultivating her career and her image as a refined anglophile; she actually disdains her fellow Americans. Now that she’s in her mid-fifties, she’s secretly pleased to see that she’s aged better than her peers. While still no great beauty, she has her own modest place among London’s intelligentsia and theatre community. She has a feeling that others might consider her prim and sexless — not true; she’s had her share of lovers! — but it’s a thought that she prefers not to dwell on.
On her flight to London, Vinnie finds herself sitting next to a talkative man from Tulsa, Oklahoma named Chuck Mumpson. He’s the epitome of everything she detests about Americans: he may be well-off, but he’s loud, brash, and uncultured. He didn’t even bring a book to read on the overseas flight! Desperate to shut him up, she offers one of her books to him and settles in for the flight.
She thinks that she’ll be rid of Chuck once they land in London, but Chuck is nothing if not persistent. He finds ways to reach out to her, and even when she’s unusually mean to him during a fight early in their acquaintanceship, he ends up admiring her candor. It turns out he’s also alone for the summer; his family could care less that he’s gone, so he’s decided to stay in the UK a little longer than planned to research some family history. He and Vinnie enter into an unlikely relationship: Chuck is clearly falling for her. As for Vinnie, she’s fallen for…the incredible sex? Because how could she actually fall for such a man? Yes, the sex would be fine for now. No one need know.
Meanwhile, Vinnie’s colleague, a strikingly handsome thirty-something named Fred Turner, is also in London to conduct research. His marriage his just ended, and he consoles himself by dating Lady Rosemary, a flighty, famous London actress who’s used to being spoiled. Fred doesn’t have anywhere near the kind of money required to keep up with his new lady, and the clear class division begin to show.
Alison Lurie takes on a lot of carefully-layered themes in this novel: love, aging, beauty, wealth, relationships, and culture shock. There’s a fair amount of comedy, but it’s also painful in few unexpected ways. I appreciated the wit throughout the book; with these characters, it would have been very easy to fall into ruts of self-pity and stay there. And while there is self-pity — Vinnie even has an imaginary dog named Fido who appears whenever she’s in a self-pitying funk — the humor and the character arcs make the book worth the effort.
Foreign Affairs was first published in 1984; it won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I listened to the audiobook version.