Tag Archives: 60s America

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

The Girl in The Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge

“I don’t believe that Harold understands me, not really … we’re not on the same wavelength.”

British author, Beryl Bainbridge has been a great favourite for years, so when she died in 2010, I thought that all those wonderful books she’s written, all those hours of pleasure and entertainment were behind me. Permanently. Then came the news that there was another book–an unfinished manuscript. The fact that the book is unfinished raised some issues. While I knew that I would have to read The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, I was also concerned that the book might be a disappointment. I shouldn’t have worried.

Bainbridge’s friend and editor, Brendan King worked on the novel after the author’s death and calls it a “flawed masterpiece.”  It’s classic Bainbridge–replete with her signature mordant wit and brilliant observations of human nature. When writing the novel, Bainbridge mined a diary account of a three-week road trip she made across America in 1968. This real journey was from Washington to San Francisco while the fictional account found in The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress begins in Baltimore and ends in Los Angeles. The book may seem to be the story of the adventures encountered on a road trip, but the real focus is the story of two startlingly dissimilar individuals who exposed to the same events, have vastly different reactions.

It’s 1968, and The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress begins with the arrival in Baltimore of a British girl called Rose. She’s flown to America to look for Dr. Wheeler, a mysterious man she met sixteen years before “in some remote coastal village in the north of England.” An enigmatic figure, Wheeler held a special significance for Rose, and while she’s suffered through some personal problems, Wheeler has somehow, in his absence, achieved the significance of a guru.

Rose, who works in a bank,  has very little money (she scrapes together $47), and really can’t afford the trip, but she’s subsidized in her quest by the equally mysterious, middle-aged Washington Harold–yet another man she met in Britain and with whom she’s been corresponding for over a year. Washington Harold has agreed to help Rose find Wheeler, and he provides a camper in which the ill-matched pair embark across America. Harold is no good samaritan, and he has his own murky reasons for seeking out Wheeler.

Most of the humour comes from the cultural encounters Rose experiences and also the frustrations Rose’s guide, Harold, undergoes through his forced confinement with Rose. Rose is a bizarre, fey creature who’s an intriguing combination of other-worldly innocence, which sometimes acts as a protective shield,  meshed with the sagacious acceptance and wisdom of the elderly. She relates meeting a man on the plane, and while we pick up bad vibes, Rose, typically, doesn’t:

Rose hadn’t liked the sound the aircraft made as it tore through the sky, and it must have made her breathe heavily because the man in the next seat kept urging her to relax and take hold of his hand. All her life people had been telling her what to do, even strangers, which was curious. He was quite a nice man, in spite of him confiding that his wife had bad breath, so she did as suggested. It didn’t help.

The encounter with the man on the plane is magnified when she talks about the incident with Harold:

“The plane was marvellous,” she gushed. “So much food they give you … all that drink. A gentleman who spoke candidly of his wife treated me to champagne … wasn’t that kind of him? He’d been away on business, first in Tokyo, then in Ireland.” Only the bit about the business trips was true: she hadn’t been bought the champagne.

Harold think Rose is impressed when she sees his home, but here’s her real reaction:

The bathroom was tiled and none too clean. There was a torn curtain of plastic slung sideways from the bath. The tub, similar to the one she used in Kentish Town, stood on cast-iron legs, old and rusted. Judging from the state of the toilet bowl, Americans didn’t know about Vim. Which was funny seeing the way Harold, the evening she had invited him in for a coffee, had rubbed his finger across her bedside table and commented on the grime.

 Harold chalks up Rose’s peculiarities to being British, notes her lack of personal hygiene, and  finally decides she is a “retard.” Rose stubbornly fights back against what she sees as Harold’s controlling personality with disconnected flights of fancy and platitudes such as “Too much cleaning makes us susceptible to germs.” The trip essentially becomes an oddly comic battle of wits and will between Harold and Rose. Even Harold’s friends consider him an inflexible bore and seem to prefer Rose.  While Harold, a mature man who holds the keys to the camper and the financial purse strings, may think he has the upper hand, ultimately Rose is the winner, and at one point, Harold is appalled to find that he’s beginning to sound like Rose. Rose’s brilliantly bizarre thought processes defy logic and counterbalance as they verve off into absurdity:

It’s normal, ” she replied, “for people who come from different backgrounds to find it difficult to get on. It’s because we’re programmed by the people who brought us up.”

It was disconcerting the way she often came out with an intelligent observation, and irritating when, as always, she quickly ruined it, suggesting that if they were squirrels, the very first ones without parents, knowing how to find nuts would be a matter of luck, not inheritance. “If we didn’t see our mothers scrabbling beneath a pine tree, how could we know what to do?” she enquired absurdly.

Bainbridge creates a kaleidoscope of 60s America culture seen through Rose’s eyes–race problems, riots, the Vietnam war, and even a bank robbery take place as Rose and Harold drive across America in Harold’s camper van. Dr. Wheeler always seems one step ahead, and since he’s rumoured to be part of Kennedy’s election team, Rose and Harold head towards Los Angeles and a date with history…

For those who’ve never read a Beryl Bainbridge novel, if you’re a fan of Muriel Spark, then chances are that you will also enjoy Bainbridge.  

Copy courtesy of the publisher, Europa Editions


Filed under Bainbridge, Beryl, Fiction