#100WomenNovelists: Alison Lurie

Blog Post 20: Real People (1969)

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Imagine a deserted estate in northern New England. Five hundred rolling acres, mainly forested with hemlock and white pine. Imposing stone gateposts; long sloping velvet lawns brocaded with the moving shadows of clouds; a thirty-five-room stone mansion in Victorian-baronial style: picturesque old stables and outbuildings; two Italian marble fountains, one indoors; three large artificial ponds stocked with fish and water lilies; and a once-famous rose garden. 

This opening paragraph is a description of Illyria, once a grand old private home which is now run as an artists’ colony. Writers, sculptors, painters, musicians, critics stay there for ‘extended visits of from a fortnight to several months’. The narrator is a short story writer called Janet Belle Smith and we see the action through her eyes, through the form of her journal which she keeps during her stay.

Janet yearns for her summer weeks spent at Illyria. The retreat gives her time off from her husband, their children, and the demands of home and enables her to focus on work, a job that her husband sees as a hobby. But this year, she has writer’s block. She believes her stories are too safe and predictable, writing as she does about small town family life which is too identifiable with her own life. She doesn’t want to offend. But over the course of her stay she realises she will have to dig deeper, ruffle some feathers, to be able to produce more profound work.

You can’t write well with only the nice parts of your character, and only about nice things. . . . I want to use everything, including hate and envy and lust and fear.

‘Real People’ examines what it means to be a creative person. (In fact a boy is overheard asking a question: ‘are those artists or are they real people?’) This is something Janet needs to work out and it is the unlikely catalyst, Anna May, who makes her – and the rest of the group – face some difficult truths.

Anna May, a pretty college student and niece of the owner of Illyria, comes to stay for a few days and brings mischief and havoc into the tranquillity that the artists need to work. One by one, the men fall for her charms and, as far as Janet is concerned, behave like teenage idiots. But she too is affected. She questions her own femininity, her relationships with the other residents are tested, and she even wonders whether she should give up her writing. Her usual peaceful, productive retreat is spoiled but she goes on an emotional journey and is quite changed, as a writer and a woman, by the time she leaves.

Fiction is condensed reality; and that’s why its flavor is more intense, like bouillon or frozen orange juice.

This is a novel to be enjoyed by writers and anyone who has been on a retreat. Well-observed, astute, witty stuff. And it leaves the question: Just who am I writing for?

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