Monday, November 10, 2003

The Last Resort by Alison Lurie

I want to talk to you this morning about a book by Alison Lurie entitled, The Last Resort. As I was reading this book, I thought I would not review it, since the plot is blatantly contrived, and the characters are so obviously doing work for the author. However, the more I read, the more obvious it became that the author was not at all trying to hide from the reader her manipulations. Even the title announces that the author is playing with her material, having fun with the reader.

The last resort is, of course, in Florida, and it is the last resort because people go there to finish out their lives and to die. This setting allows Lurie to explore a number of her favorite themes, and to do so in a manner that is both quite funny and quite perceptive. There is no single star in this novel; rather, Lurie brings together a collection of people who would never be together save for this being the last resort.

The plots and subplots are a thick soup. Perhaps the most important character in the book is Jenny, a bright and able woman whose significance in life is in being the wife and helpmate of a famous environmentalist. Her husband, Wilkie Walker (close enough to Willie Wonka to bring an immediate smile) has spent a lifetime as a writer and crusader for the environment, but we readers know that he thinks his star is burning out. Younger, tougher environmentalists are taking over the spotlight, and to make matters far, far worse, he suspects, indeed he claims to know, that he is dying. In fact, he agrees to leave his New England home and study to go to Florida and the last resort only because he knows that his life is over. Going to Florida is to provide him with a convenient way to commit suicide (swimming out to sea), and a way as well to help his much younger wife and assistant to transition to a life without Wilkie.

The wise and strong Wilkie has decided that he must protect his much weaker and more vulnerable wife both by not telling her that he is dying, and by beginning to pave the way for her life after his death. Even the thought of a life without Wilkie brings tears to his eyes.

Lurie's description and setting up of this couple is sad, perceptive and mischievously funny. Jenny knows that she is not simply important but essential to Wilkie's work. Besides maintaining a house for him, cooking all of his meals, acting as his secretary as well as his editor (and truth be told, co-writer), she has raised their two children and tried to shield the children from their father's disappointment with them (since neither, sadly enough, is a little Wilkie in the making). Just to add spice, Lurie paints Wilkie as deeply homophobic who argues in his work that homosexuality is simply an aberration of nature.

Jenny is well aware that some women view her partnership with her husband as a trap, that they see her as subverting her own career in furthering Wilkie's, but they simply don't understand the importance of the work. In Jenny's own words:

Theoretically, as a modern, enlightened person, Jenny supported the women's movement, and occasionally had been persuaded to send a check to NOW. But in fact feminism had done nothing for her except make her chosen life seem peculiar and estrange her from her friends. She could agree with them that there was no reason why most men shouldn't help with household tasks and child care. But Wilkie Walker was not most men: he was unique, irreplaceable. The work they did together might change, had changed, the world. Jenny didn't want to be forced to abandon this work in favor of some theoretical 'career'.

This conviction, unfortunately, had come between Jenny and many women she might have remained or become her close friends. But when they cooled towards her, or failed to warm, Jenny forgave them. They didn't understand; they were married to ordinary replaceable men, men whose jobs could be done by someone else if necessary.

Lurie has set the stage so well. Now add in a woman, Lee, about Jenny's age who runs a women's only resort and who manages to rescue Jenny from drowning and to fall in love with her almost the day that the Walkers arrive in Florida. Wilkie, absorbed by his own impending death and his dwindling stature does not realize all the ways in which refusing to tell his wife of his illness and his death-fears alienates them from each other. Since she has no way of knowing that his silence, his downright coldness around her, his no longer sharing even his work with her is occasioned by his struggles with his own mortality, she quite naturally supposes other explanations for his freezing her out. And then the final straw, he fails with her in bed!!! In his words, “... their final significant encounter had been false and meaningless. Last night, their last night together, he had planned to make love to Jenny. He had tried, strained, willed it with all of his force—but all for nothing; worse than nothing.” When Jenny tries to reassure him, to tell him quite truthfully that it is the closeness that matters, that his failed erection is not the end of the world, he angrily discounts her words. “Of course she would say that, out of politeness, out of love. Silently he had turned away from her and pretended to sleep. That clumsy, humiliating failure would always be her last intimate memory of him.”

Ah, what could be worse for such a vital, such a virile, such an important man than to lose his erection. Nothing left but to swim out into the ocean one last time, to die brave and alone.

Already, I have probably told you too much of the plot, but there are many surprises left to come, and many characters that I have not even mentioned. Lurie obviously has fun with the absurd homophobia of Wilkie as well as other characters whom she contrives to bring on stage. The almost inevitable romance between Lee, the owner of the resort, and Jenny is humorous, but it is also touching and (I think) full of insights about how relationships should really be, about the mutual attention and respect that really good relationships require.

Again, despite the comedic setting, Lurie has important insights about both the importance of environmentalism and about the ways that it can direct political energy as well as the ways in which it can deflect it into a kind of meaningless sentimentalism. In the end, this book is a comedy with more than a few important messages, and it is written by a writer who has mastered her talents. It is at the very least and entertaining novel, and I think quite a bit more than that. I think Lurie deals with sexual and political themes in important ways, and even quite deep existential questions get a good, hard look, though all of this is cloaked in humor. It is an easy book to read, and I think its messages are well worth absorbing.

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