The War Between the Tates by Alison Lurie

The unwelcome thought comes to Brian that two women who were in reasonably good shape when he met them are now, somewhat as a result of his actions, on the verge of nervous collapse.”

In Alison Lurie’s novel, The War Between the Tates (1974),the disintegration of a marriage is set against the backdrop of a society in flux with battles waged at home and abroad. Set in the late 60s, Feminism, a “conflict of generations,” sexual liberation, LSD,  abortions, the Vietnam War, and student protests are topical issues addressed in these pages, and the content conclusively seals this novel as an important read of the era. Not only does Alison Lurie explore some of the controversial elements within American society, but she also examines the fate of one family as traditional morality is challenged by a new value system.

The War between the TatesAt 39, Erica Tate, who’s written, illustrated and published a handful of children’s books, is a bored housewife and a frazzled mother of two demanding, obnoxious teenagers:  Jeffrey 15 and Matilda almost 13. The Tates moved to upstate New York eight years previously after  husband Brian secured a position in the Political Science department at Corinth University. They purchased a “deserted, sagging gray farmhouse miles out of town,” and they seemed to be set for an idyllic upper-middle class life. That life is under assault, and the onslaught simultaneously comes from several directions: the children are no longer sweet little tots,  and the family’s peaceful isolation is violated by the emergence of a new housing estate with uniformly built ranch homes which spoil the Tates’ view–effectively “blocking their sunset.” But that seems minor when compared to the rot which has set into the Tates’ marriage. In spite of moderate academic success, at 46, Brian who holds the prestigious “Sayle Chair of American Diplomacy” is nonetheless a “dissatisfied and disappointed man.” Brian Tate always imagined that he’d have a career similar to that of his hero, diplomat, adviser and Political Scientist George Kennan. Although Brian is admired and respected by his colleagues and is a frequent public speaker on American foreign policy, Brian considers himself a “failure.”

Why he asks himself sourly, is he speaking on foreign policy instead of helping to make it? Why does he still discuss other men’s theories, instead of his own?

 Brian is in middle-age and nursing secret disappointments, when a young Social Psychology graduate student named Wendy Gahaghan enters his life : “a small hippie-type blonde in his graduate seminar on American Institutions.” Clearly infatuated with her professor, the emotionally volatile Wendy lays siege to Brian, and while he stops short of telling her to go away and mentally fabricates a number of reasons/excuses for not having an affair, the truth is that he finds her complete worship of everything he says and does flattering. This appeal to his ego eventually breaks down his flimsy defenses, and Brian begins an affair with Wendy. To Brian, Wendy, whose ambition is to “go into the wilderness and live in a commune based on mutual cooperation and mystical philosophy”  is a refreshing change. To Wendy, Brian is a “great man, a hero” and she believes that the book he’s trying to complete will change America’s foreign policy and possibly even save the planet.

And Brian would look across the table–or the bed at his wife, who had never given herself completely to anyone; who merely lent herself. Graciously and sometimes enthusiastically, yes. But like an expensive library book, Erica had to be used with care and returned on time in perfect condition.

This frequently funny campus novel explores academic life through the fallout of Brian Tate’s affair. Erica’s best friend, Danielle is a casualty of divorce, and she thinks that “men will do anything they can get away with.” With her ex, the libidinous Leonard, a former Corinth professor back in New York, Danielle begins teaching French part time, engages in an extraordinary number of sexual encounters, and is part of a “campus discussion group named Women for Human Equality Now; Brian refers to them as hens.”  Soured by men and at the same time exploring new boundaries to her behavior, Danielle’s “new hobby-horse [is] the awfulness of men.”  Once Erica considered Danielle tainted by her marital experience with Leonard, but in light of Brian’s affair, she finds herself agreeing with her friend’s opinion of men–a sex who will “do anything they can get away with.”

As the relationship between Brian and Wendy becomes suddenly much more complicated, Erica find herself faced with a moral dilemma. The decision she makes involves a large chunk of the story, and this is one of those books in which the reader becomes silently involved through questioning what we would do if we were in Brian or Erica’s shoes. Much of the novel concerns people behaving badly: there’s Brian lying about the affair, Wendy who supposedly wants to merely breathe the same air as Brian, and Erica who begins to feel ostracized by the academic community yet stalked by men who think she’s desperate for a quickie. Meanwhile social unrest and student protests against the Vietnam War hit the Corinth campus right around the time a group of militant feminists decide that one misogynistic professor has gone too far….

The War Between the Tates has a fascinating subtext regarding perceptions. Brian for example, is seen as some sort of god by the gormless Wendy, but Erica’s opinion of Brian has hit an all-time low. Erica perceives herself as an attractive, much-sought after woman, until the mirror shows a reflection that is far from Erica’s idealized image of herself. Erica flounders for a great deal of the book, and that’s partly because she’s no longer sure who she’s supposed to be.

That is the worst thing about being a middle-aged woman. You have already made your choices, taken the significant moral actions of your life long ago when you were inexperienced. Now you have more knowledge of yourself and the world; you are equipped to make choices, but there are none left to make.

Having lost her identity as a happy wife and mother, Erica feels unsure about what’s left and she feels like a “character in a cheap farce.” Danielle drags Erica off to feminist meetings, but Erica doesn’t relate at all to the feminist movement. She considers the “whole feminist campaign … a mistake” particularly when it comes to the issue of sexual liberation. Danielle’s attitude towards sex has undergone a seismic shift since Leonard’s departure, and since she is no longer in a supposedly monogamous relationship, there appear to be no boundaries. She tells a horrified Erica :”I used to think, if they only want one thing, the poor bastards, why not give it to them.” Erica, however, is appalled by the notion of casual sex and thinks that women are doing themselves no favours.

Today, everywhere, Erica thinks, men must be laughing uproariously as they see us dismantling our own defenses from within–removing the elaborate barbed-wire entanglements of etiquette, tearing down the modest walls which for so long shielded our privacy, and filling in the moat of chastity with mud.

Brain is led astray by Wendy’s questionable allure, and so it would seem predictable that perhaps Erica will follow Danielle’s lead in her pursuit of feminism. Author Alison Lurie doesn’t take the predictable route, so instead we see another strange character emerge who becomes the counterbalance or seductive foil to Wendy–Zed, a former acquaintance of Erica’s who makes his way to Corinth and establishes the floundering Krishna bookshop in town. The bookshop is a popular hangout for some of the students–including Wendy. Zed appears to understand Wendy very well and with a totally different perception of the emotionally needy Wendy he argues that “Weakness can be a strategy just like any other.” Yet just what is Zed’s role in Wendy’s life.?Is he truly as disinterested in the Tates’ marriage as he professes to be? Highly entertaining, amusing and yet fraught with cruel realities about aging not being a defense against acting foolishly, The War Between the Tates presents a rich tableaux of characters set adrift in a shifting moral landscape. 

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Lurie, Alison

14 responses to “The War Between the Tates by Alison Lurie

  1. Brian Joseph

    The 60’s were such an incredible era. The mythology that arose around that time still plays a really important role in our culture. I myself am very fascinated with the decade. It sounds like this book is a great period piece about the period.

  2. I remember reading this in the late 1970s, although I have to confess that I needed your review to remind me how the story unfolded. I note that this is a review copy — has it been reissued in a new edition? I’d have to say that some other novels on similar themes from the era probably have shown more staying power so far.

    • Kevin: it’s from Open Road media–reissued in kindle format. I think the book speaks to a whole new audience as it puts the 60s in historical context. For me the 60s had a lot of promise but the era was hijacked by the drug culture. Too bad really.

      • It does raise an interesting point. We are at a stage now where “mature” writers who grew up in the 1960s are publishing “look-back” novels about the era (Linda Grant’s We Had It So Good and Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow to name just two). Contrasting those memories with one written at the time is an intriguing idea for those of us who grew up then.

        • As I said to Caroline, we can now weigh the novel in its historical context. Divorce for example is a lot more prevalent, and so, in a way, we can look at The War Between the Tates and decide what exactly from that era lasted and what didn’t. Were Erica’s experiences unique for the time or not? I’ve yet to read the two novels you mention–although they are both sitting on my shelves.

  3. I was wondering whether it wasn’t dated but there is clearly more than just a potrayal of 60s America. It’s an era I’m fond of and like to read about and I think I’d enjoy Alison Lurie. It’s seesm she does a great job and showing how oftne we define ourselves through roles and that sometimes not much is left once the role is gone.

  4. Oddly enough I think the book have felt more dated a couple of decades ago than it does now. Now 40 years later, we can see, in society, the fallout and fermentation of many of the issues at the fore in the novel. Erica, for example, is most concerned that feminism isn’t all positive for women in many ways, and now 40 years later, we see women still struggling to raise children and clean the home AND work full time. Abortion rights also are addressed. They were illegal at the time in NY.

    The only thing I found a bit dated was Wendy’s hippie speech. But then I don’t think there’s any way around that.

  5. acommonreaderuk

    Well well, that does sounds good – and I’ve never heard of it. I like the thought about how the middle aged feel – “Now you have more knowledge of yourself and the world; you are equipped to make choices, but there are none left to make”. Brave are those who launch on some new career or great project at that stage of life.

    Have a wonderful Christmas and thanks for your visits to my blog over the last year. I look forward to reading your thoughts over 2013

    • Brave or foolhardy: I’ve lost count of the disasters I’ve seen. People seem to think that life is like a board game where you get endless gos at the same thing.

      Happy Xmas Tom.

  6. I’d love this book, but you know that. I think the 1960s are fascinating but that we don’t hear .enough of the 1970s and the political and economic context.
    Lots of things appeal to me in this book: feminism, the change in relationships between men and women (I was thinking about this this morning when I started Tu verras by Nicolas Fargues), the campus environment and the political context. Rich material.
    1974,I’ve just read a book set in that year, when the dictatorship in Portugal fell.

    • Yes Emma: I’m sure you’d like it. I found myself very involved with the story and the characters. There’s one scene when Erica is going to a party at Danielle’s house and she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She’s shocked by what she sees and grabs some of her daughter’s make up which is a horrible mistake. It’s funny but it’s also very sad.

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