“On a cold blowy February day a woman is boarding the ten a.m. flight to London, followed by an invisible dog.” So begins a wonderful Valentine’s Day book and one of my favorite romances, Alison Lurie’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Foreign Affairs.
I remember when I first bought “Foreign Affairs,” more than twenty years ago now, at a bookstore in Cambridge, Mass. The bookstore kept a shelf of recent Pulitzer Prize winners, and since I was young and dreamed of one day winning a Pulitzer Prize, I bought it. What I didn’t expect was how profound an effect “Foreign Affairs” would have on my life—indeed, how it taught me that no career, no matter how glamorous, can compare to the joy that real love brings.
The story revolves around a college professor named Virginia Miner—“fifty-four years old, small, plain, and unmarried, the sort of woman no one ever notices”—as she boards that plane to London. Her career as a children’s literature professor has just taken a sudden and unexpected hit, in the form of a disparaging magazine reference to her life’s work; and she opens the novel feeling ready to pronounce her life a failure. (The “invisible dog” is Vinnie’s visualization of her own self-pity.) Yet on that lonely, miserable flight she finds herself seated next to a man named Chuck Mumpson, a hulky Oklahoman in tacky Western clothing, who draws her in despite her unrealistic visions of her perfect mate. By the end of the book she grasps how little her career really means to her: only love matters.
After reading that book, I made a resolution: I didn’t want to wait until I was fifty-four to learn what love felt like. I didn’t want to make Vinnie’s mistake of wasting my life dreaming of some perfect, imaginary ‘other,’ overlooking a good guy because he didn’t happen to meet my own “silly standards,” as a character so aptly puts it in “Foreign Affairs.” In the twenty-plus years since I first read “Foreign Affairs,” I haven’t won a single Pulitzer Prize. And thanks to the experience of reading “Foreign Affairs,” I couldn’t care less.