Something has happened to Alison Lurie in the decade since her last novel, The Truth About Lorin Jones. In her new book, The Last Resort, this cold-eyed social satirist exhibits unexpected compassion for her characters, an empathy that has not been evident in her previous eight novels, which include the best-selling The War Between the Tates and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Foreign Affairs.

Though sprinkled with vestiges of her distinctive maliciousness, The Last Resort is tinged with a melancholy autumnal retrospection, a sense of summing up. After 36 years as a novelist, Lurie has decided to forgive her characters for being human. In her most memorable books—The Nowhere City (1965) and Imaginary Friends (1967)—she invents characters with the gleeful purpose of destroying them: undermining their values, mocking their manners, spoiling their relationships, laying bare their self-deceptions. Apart from the late Richard Yates (Disturbing the Peace, The Easter Parade), it’s difficult to think of an American novelist with a more malevolent vision.

An oddly shaped volume with the exact dimensions of a Stouffer frozen Chicken à la King carton, The Last Resort, set in Key West (one of the author’s three residences), recycles situations from her earlier fictions: the disorientation experienced by a couple relocating from cold, repressive New England to a sunny, hedonistic environment (The Nowhere City); the deterioration of a marriage dominated by a narcissistic male academic (The War Between the Tates); the juxtaposition of straight and gay relationships (Love and Friendship, Lurie’s first novel). Characters from her previous books pop up, too. Glory Green, The Nowhere City’s voluptuous, good-natured movie starlet, resurrects as a tour guide at a dolphin sanctuary, and Professor L.D. Zimmern is back for what, if I remember correctly, is his third appearance in a Lurie novel.

The Last Resort—a resonant if unsubtle title that alludes to the physical and psychological impasses of most of its characters as well as Key West’s geographical location—opens with self-centered septuagenarian naturalist Wilkie Walker (savior of the Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse) and his devoted “Victorian wife” Jenny, 24 years his junior, abandoning the chill of New England’s Convers College to winter in Key West. Concerned that her husband has become distant and depressed, Jenny hopes that the change of climate will restore his spirits. She’s unaware that Wilkie believes that he has colon cancer and intends to drown himself on a Key West beach. One of Lurie’s running jokes is that each time Wilkie attempts suicide, his efforts are foiled by some unforeseen obstacle: inclement weather, an unshakable hanger-on, somebody else’s successful self-destruction at the same spot.

With her husband increasingly indifferent to her, Jenny is forced to seek companionship among the colorful locals and gradually becomes aware that “as in most resorts, everything seemed designed to recommend and encourage sensual pleasure. In such a place, either you went along with it, or, like Wilkie, you became more and more cross and tight and withdrawn.” Stung by a man-of-war jellyfish while swimming, she’s assisted and soon befriended by Lee Weiss, a lesbian ex-therapist who runs a women-only guest house, the Artemis Lodge. Through Lee, she meets Jacko, a handsome, HIV-positive gardener, and his vacationing Oklahoma family: his benevolent mother; right-wing fundamentalist aunt Myra; and hapless cousin Barbie, the unhappy spouse of a philandering Republican congressman. Feeling cast off after devoting her adult life to Wilkie’s work and well-being, Jenny is revitalized by the vibrancy of her surroundings and feels increasingly drawn to Lee, who has fallen in love with her.

Lurie’s work is old-fashioned in the best sense. Much of the pleasure of reading The Last Resort stems from her skill at organizing an array of characters (considerably more than I have mentioned) and subplots into an intricate but always coherent narrative. Her decision to borrow the title of Jane Austen’s first novel for her own maiden effort explains a great deal about her influences and goals. Lurie’s style is, as always, lucid and unpretentious, designed to keep her story flowing rather than call attention to itself.

And flow it does, so swiftly that, until the final page, one barely notices the shallowness of Lurie’s invention. Having chosen to become a kinder, gentler author, she has difficulty finding a tone to replace her trademark mockery. Gone are the memorable comic set pieces (usually elaborate depictions of someone’s humiliation) that distinguished her past work, and even her jokes are infrequent and somewhat perplexing. (Apart from naughtiness, is there any purpose in naming a physician Dr. Felch?) Give or take a few flashes of tenderness, Wilkie is a self-absorbed pasteboard male chauvinist, and Jenny, Wilkie’s longtime handmaiden, has no identity of her own and appears untouched by three decades of feminism. (Lurie’s shorthand ploy of having someone refer to her as “a walking anachronism” doesn’t absolve the author of the task of making Jenny believable.) Predictably, the gay characters are kindhearted and emotionally accessible, the reactionaries materialistic and, of course, homophobic. This schematic, smug predictability is formally mirrored by an annoying mannerism I had not previously noticed in Lurie’s prose: the grating repetition of adjectives, presumably for musical effect. The phrases “splashing in the warm ocean, or lazing in the warmer sand” and “listening to loud, rhythmic music and exchanging loud, rhythmic comments” appear in the same paragraph on Page 24.

The most affecting character in The Last Resort is Molly Hopkins, the elderly widow of one of Wilkie’s colleagues, who spends part of each year in Key West. Plagued by crippling arthritis, Molly is often immobile and has no narrative function apart from serving as a wise, passive witness to the other characters’ predicaments. She laments that there are “so few grown-ups around, so few sensible people left alive in the world,” and, though she occasionally contemplates death, she is sustained by “her curiosity as to what would happen next. For her, both Convers and Key West were full of interesting characters and soap operas.”

It’s difficult not to identify Molly as the author’s spokesperson, an aging woman who embodies The Last Resort’s theme: “[A]s you grow older and the future shrinks, you have only two choices: you can live in the fading past, or, like children do, in the bright full present.” Although the novel plumps for the latter option, its reprocessed plot and characters, its benign, resigned tone, and its mournful epigraphs (lines from Wordsworth’s “Intimations” ode and an encyclopedia excerpt about the endangered manatee) suggest that Lurie has begun to withdraw from the present. Aware that nearly four decades of her merciless satire haven’t altered human nature in the slightest, she, like Molly, has distanced herself, “as if she were living in the epilogue of her own life, watching things happen to other people.”CP