Love and Friendship, Alison Lurie

Elaine Showalter told me about this book!  ELAINE SHOWALTER.

I mean, in the sense that I was suddenly struck by what a totally badass literary critic Elaine Showalter was, so I looked her up and discovered that she had written a book about academic novels, and I wrote down a few of them, and the one I wanted to read was Love and Friendship by Alison Lurie, I think because its title was so banal, and yet Elaine Showalter found it worthwhile to write about it.  (What she wrote about it I have no idea.  The (only?) downside to graduating was that I no longer have access to my university library, and the public library has several of Elaine Showalter’s book but not the one about academic novels.  Oh well.)  I really like Elaine Showalter.  She seems so clever and sensible and cool and awesome.  (Being an English major does not wear off all at once, or possibly ever.)

I got Love and Friendship out of the library yesterday, which theoretically put it at the bottom of the list of books to read, but then I opened it up to read the blurb, and I inhaled the way it smelled, and I couldn’t put it back down again.  I think this smell is the way all old books smell, when they have spent years and years hanging out on library shelves, but to me, it feels like it must be individual to my own library and my own childhood.  I smell it and think of princes and bears and woodcutters and travel to faraway places; and I wish I could bottle that smell because then I would always have it with me, and my life would always smell like fairy tales.

Yes, Love and Friendship seduced me through my nose.  Like Louis and Joe the Mormon.

It’s about a woman called Emmy, who comes from money and has married somebody who didn’t.  She lives with her husband Holman and their son Freddy in a small college town, and Holman teaches at the college.  And one day Emmy realizes that she isn’t in love with him anymore.  They are mutually shutting each other out, and presently Emmy becomes involved with a musician called Will.  Things go on from there, as you might imagine.

I enjoyed this book a lot.  I thought that Holman, Emmy’s husband, was not quite fully realized; whereas the other characters’ motivations were explored fairly thoroughly, I was never sure what Holman was thinking or where he was coming from.  This wasn’t the hugest deal because Lurie dealt very well with the motivations of the others.  In particular, I enjoyed Emmy a lot as a character.  Her attitudes – what upsets her and what doesn’t, what surprises her, unsettles her – were often unexpected but never jarring.  Ditto Miranda Fenn, the wildly disorganized wife and mother of three through whom Emmy meets Will in the first place.

I liked the constant questioning of the utility of the course Holman is teaching at the college, which they call Hum C, and which constantly forces its students to define the terms in which they explain their beliefs, and then to constantly reevaluate what they think they believe, or how they express it.  Emmy, who as a woman isn’t allowed to attend college classes, keeps asking Holman about it, and he gets tired of discussing it with her.  I love the way his refusal to keep talking about it, his shutting her out of the academic world that’s so important to him, almost necessitates her affair with Will, at which point she performs this same defining of terms (love & friendship) and reevaluation of her beliefs in a non-academic, real world setting.

(That sounded really boring when I said it, but it’s not boring at all in the book.)

Moreover, and this is just another argument in favor of reading the end before you read the middle, not that I need any more because it’s obviously better, I read the end of Love and Friendship before I read the middle, and this book ends just brilliantly.  Really, the last scene between Miranda and Emmy wraps the book up perfectly.  Because it is so great, and says so much about the events of the book and most if not all of the characters in it, I’m excerpting it here.  It doesn’t give anything away, except for, you know, themes.  I am just a connoisseur of endings, because they are so important to me, and quite often a book just stops, which drives me nuts.  Whereas this is a fantastic conclusion:

“What on earth are they doing?”
“I think they’re playing blind-man’s-bluff.”
The children ran back and forth.  Laughing and screaming, they bumped against each other, bounced apart, waved their arms, and fell down singly or in couples on the grass.
“Freddy!” she called.  He did not hear.
Something was wrong with the game, though.  “But they’re all blindfolded!” Emmy objected.
“Yes,” Miranda said.  “They like it better that way.”

Another quote I liked:

Miranda was silent, drawing the dirty paper plates printed with cute pictures of witches to her and piling them together.  “I’ll tell you what it is,” she said.  “We all want to be guilty, because guilt is power.  It’s proof that one’s magic works.”

And this – a fairly devastating denunciation, I think:

“Everybody thinks he’s their pal.  Why shouldn’t they?  He thinks he’s everybody’s pal.  He loves Convers [the college] and everyone in it so much he can’t stay in his office, he has to go out and walk around the campus spreading joy.  ‘I’m in my heaven, all’s right with your world.’”

I swear I’m done after this:

He sees how stupid the rules are, so he breaks them.  He doesn’t plan to make things hard for anybody, but he does….The power of society is such that, no matter how much we despise it, our crimes are always against individuals.

On the other hand, the great affection I feel for this book could all be down to the fact that seriously, it smelled like absolutely heaven.  Even though I know that dozens of library books smell this exact same way, I am having a hard time returning Love and Friendship to the library.  Its pages have that texture, slightly soft and so well-worn that they’re crumply at the edges; and the cover is one of those friendly orange library bindings, and the blurb is pasted onto the back of the title page, and it smells perfect.  I want to hug it.

  • anna

    1. That sounds like so much fun, being all blindfolded!

    2. Revenge for the many years of correctness I have suffered from you: It’s not a quote, it’s a quotation.

  • jennysbooks

    1. That’s not the point, although you are a lovely person.
    2. Mwahahahahahahahaha. I KNEW you would say that. I win my little bet with myself.

  • anna

    I know it’s not the point, that’s obvious. But still-doesn’t it sound like fun??? You really need to stop making bets with yourself involving me.

  • “I wish I could bottle that smell because then I would always have it with me, and my life would always smell like fairy tales.”

    This really made me smile 🙂 Bottled book smell…I love that.

    And I love the sound of the book, too.

  • jennysbooks

    I still haven’t returned it to the library. I keep opening it up and inhaling. I think the problem is that I’ve bought myself copies of a lot of the old books I used to get from the library, and the books I check out now tend to be newer. So it’s been a little while since I checked out a book that smelled this way.

    On the plus side, Alison Lurie has written a number of other books, and they are all oldish, so there’s more in store for me. 🙂