Books: The Last Resort by Alison Lurie Chatto & Windus, pounds 15.99; Queer fish and straight men

Michael Arditti basks in the Florida sunshine of a charming satire on human-hating Greens

When Jenny, the 46-year-old wife of eminent naturalist Wilkie Walker, goes swimming off Key West, she fails to read the notices warning "Danger: Men of War" and is duly attacked by a jellyfish. Far more serious, however, has been her failure to heed the danger posed by Men of Letters. After 25 years of marriage to Wilkie, she finds herself stung.

In a novel pervaded by examples of endangered species, Jenny belongs to the most threatened. She is a "walking anachronism" who "devotes herself full-time to her husband like a Victorian wife". Wilkie is a Desmond Morris figure, a populariser who "had made his point so well that it had become banal". Jenny's contribution to his work goes way beyond conjugal duty, as his books are "full of sentences, and even paragraphs, that she had composed".

Unknown to Jenny, Wilkie suspects that he has bowel cancer and falls into a severe depression. She suggests a trip to Key West and he, considering it a suitable place for suicide, accepts. Once there, his gloom deepens; for, while the climate may be congenial, the clientele are not. It's not so much its position which has earned Key West the title of Last Resort as the haven it offers to people who have nowhere else to go.

The Walkers are exposed to a more varied population than on their New England campus: in particular, Jacko, a gay man with HIV, who is their caretaker, and Lee, the owner of a women's guest house, who rescues Jenny from the jellyfish - and from Wilkie. Lee is particularly hostile to Wilkie's homophobia and his erroneous, as well as irrelevant, declaration that "animals can't be queer". Lurie beautifully handles Lee and Jenny's courtship and the ecstatic liberation of lesbian love ("the air still seemed full of sequinned snowflakes"). The most unexpected facet of the book is its depiction of heterosexual relationships as adulterous and manipulative and homosexual ones as loving and supportive.

Lurie sets up a clear dichotomy between those characters - primarily Wilkie but also Gerry, a self-serving poet, and Myra, a Republican power- broker - who see people in terms of other species (mice, shrews, dolphins, manatees and birds), and those - Lee, Jacko and Molly, an elderly artist - who see them for themselves. Wilkie, as becomes clear to everyone but Jenny, is a monster (if she is a Victorian wife, he is her Casaubon) whose chief concern for her is how she will fare as his literary executor. It is telling that the example she picks of his generosity is his giving "money for the conversion of his books into Braille".

This is a charming, sunny book that seems infused with all the warmth of its setting. Even the air of death and decay that infiltrates in the form of Wilkie's musings on a dying environment, Molly's sense of loss and Jacko's diagnosis, fails to dent the novel's high spirits. It is full of sparkish - indeed, Muriel Sparkish - observations and gently subversive wit. Above all, Lurie exposes the dishonesty of people who wish to protect nature's diversity while demanding human homogeneity. The whole weight of the book lies behind Lee's declaration that "anyone has the right to be in love. It's just a dumb convention that they have to be the same age and race and religion and class, and they can't be the same sex."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Reprographics Operator

    £12500 - £13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The largest independent Reprogr...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Design Apprentice

    £6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a well established websit...

    Tradewind Recruitment: French & German Teacher

    £120 - £145 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: French & German Teacher X2 Materni...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer / Systems Administrator

    £25000 - £32500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in SW London, this compan...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee