If you were already a fan of Pulitzer Prize winner Alison Lurie, this collection of her essays will make you want to be her new best friend. In Words and Worlds: From Autobiography to Zippers (Delphinium Books), she writes about her time at Radcliffe when it was still an all-girls companion college to the all-male Harvard; she writes about theater and deconstructing literature, Edward Gorey, Babar the elephant, Narnia, aprons, and, yup, zippers.
But through it all, she is writing about herself because we readers see her elbow her way through a male-centric world without complaining, whining, or tipping over any metaphorical furniture.
The essays in this book were written over a period of more than 70 years. They begin by introducing the reader to Lurie as a skinny, plain, odd-looking little girl with a crooked smile, deaf in one ear and, by her own admittance, not especially charming. Where do we go from here?
All over the place, apparently.
For a Pulitzer Prize winner (in 1985, for her novel Foreign Affairs), Lurie didn’t have much purchase as a young writer. However, uncowed by lack of encouragement, she wrote. She said it was like a bad habit that she tried sometimes to quit. When she did, though, the boredom was unbearable.
Words and Worlds is the ruminations of a bored and brilliant woman, surrounded by people worth writing – and reading – about. Ok, I had to look up some. Like British actors Peter Eyre and Robert Stephens – and V.R. Lang whose unexpected death was the beginning of Lurie’s success as a writer. Reading about the famous and accomplished people she knew, however, made me feel as though Lurie was inviting me to be part of her circle of friends.
Decades of changing hats and hemlines contributed to some rather surprising information about fashion and hairstyles, which sent me looking for her 1981 book The Language of Clothes, which lays out some principals of communication by means of dress.
For me, however, the most memorable essays in the collection were those about children’s literature. I’ve been a fan of Edward Gorey for decades, creeping my toddler son out with haunted mansions and abandoned children who die. My son especially liked The Dwindling Party in which a family of seven disappears one by one in monstrous ways until only tiny Neville is left, remarking that it was probably all for the best. Maybe it was my favorite, not my son’s. But I loved learning about the man who dreamed it all up. And who knew he wrote and illustrated a charming parody of pornography?
Lurie taught courses on children’s literature at Cornell, and after reading her educated take on such stories as Pinocchio, I shall never look at fairy tales through the eyes of Disney again. Myths and cultures are fertile ground from which so many children’s stories grew, and knowing their histories make familiar characters so much richer, their plots – as they changed through the years – so much more intriguing.
If, like me, you are embarrassed to admit you haven’t read any of Allison Lurie’s books, you will still want to be her best friend after finishing Words and Worlds – or maybe, again like me, about half-way through — right about the time I got to “Witches Old and New” and read about Shirley Jackson’s spell on Alfred Knopf. (Surely, you read “The Lottery” in high school. Sorry about the Shirley/Surely thing.)
So I put down Words and Worlds and went directly to the library and got The War Between the Tates, which I read over the course of the weekend, mildly annoyed that I had to read it so slowly because Lurie’s words are important and valuable and I could not skim. Nor could I flip to the end to see if that stupid girl was still pregnant; I didn’t want to miss anything in between.
Then I went back to Words and Worlds and read about Harry Potter.
Words and Worlds, besides being a darned captivating read, is an inspiration to read (or re-read) Lurie’s novels – but more importantly, introduce yourself to her nonfiction work. I just ordered Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups. I don’t even know what it’s about, but I like the title. And I like Alison Lurie, my new best friend.
Words and Worlds is now available.
About Alison Lurie
Alison Lurie, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Foreign Affairs, has published 10 books of fiction, four works of nonfiction, and three collections of tales for children. She is a professor emeritus of English at Cornell University and lives in upstate New York with her husband, the writer Edward Hower.