An education in despair and desire

Novel

October 16, 2005|By SUSAN REIMER | SUSAN REIMER,SUN REPORTER

Truth and Consequences

Alison Lurie

Viking / 232 pages

Truth and Consequences begins ominously when Jane Mackenzie, working in her garden, catches sight of a man coming up the driveway whom she does not recognize as her husband, so bent and broken is he by lingering, terrible back pain.

The injury itself was ominous. Alan Mackenzie, an academic luminary in architectural history and 11 years Jane's senior, hurt himself during a midlife testosterone surge on the volleyball court.

Now that injury has changed the dynamic of their relationship to a fatal degree. He is no longer the Prince Charming who rescued her from the mousy, brown world of old-maidhood. He is a physical and emotional cripple, rendered so small by his pain that he moans loud enough at night to make sure she is sharing his suffering.

Jane, as dutiful and efficient in wifedom as she was at her small job at the university, is trapped between resentful and resented, forced to remind herself every day of the "in sickness and in health" part of her vows. But the meals she leaves him under plastic wrap are increasingly inedible.

Into their university town, modeled loosely after Lurie's own Cornell, blows visiting poet Delia Delaney, a sex bomb with a big appetite for pampering. She arrives with her own advance man, husband Henry Hull, who also comes behind to clean up Delia's messes.

Alan and Delia, who is often stricken with migraines as debilitating as his back pain, immediately bond over their pain and their narcissism, while sparks fly between the dutiful Jane and the long-suffering Henry.

But Truth and Consequences is more than a tale of partner-swapping in a college town.

Lurie, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for her novel Foreign Affairs, has been called the American version of Jane Austen because she is so good at illuminating the slippery morality of American relationships in that peculiarly precise British formula that Austen made famous.

And she does it inside a world she knows well - American academic life, where she was once one of those smart, well-educated university housewives who buries her talent while promoting her husband's.

Lurie, educated at Radcliffe, has taught children's literature at Cornell for more than 30 years, but she only got the job after it had been vacant for years, and she had to publish a half-dozen novels before she was given a full professorship.

Her razor-sharp portraits of marriage - at the center of all her novels - were no doubt honed against the dissolution of her own. Her husband and the father of her three children suddenly became devoutly Catholic and, caught between the sins of divorce and contraception, writhed in indecision until Lurie nudged him out and picked up her own life.

There is not one wasted word in Truth and Consequences, told, in alternating chapters, by Jane and Alan.

Lurie's language is as sharp as the claws of pain that rule Alan's life and the pangs of guilt that threaten Jane's.

The book is delightfully readable. You are into it and out of it before you know it, but not without a fresh look at the maneuvers inside marriage.

But there is a dusty dryness to the romance between her characters, especially Jane and Henry, who should be ravenous for affection.

I guess we should not be surprised - Lurie is, after all, almost 80. But one might like a little heat with all this light.

sunan.reimer@baltsun.com

Susan Reimer is a Sun columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.