Alison Lurie

"Truth and Consequences"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage DEC 31, 2006)

"Delia’s not capable of multi-tasking. When she’s working, she doesn’t notice anything that happens around her. Of if you manage to interrupt her, then she turns her attention on you—her complete attention, like a high-powered spotlight, though usually not for long. People are drawn to it like moths, they flutter frantically against the glass, and then the spotlight is turned off and they fall to the ground, scorched."

Truth and Consequences b Alison LurieMiddle-aged Jane Mackenzie and her husband Alan used to be happily married, but their relationship is now marred by Alan’s back injury. For the past 15 months, he’s consulted a number of doctors and therapists, and even undergone surgery. But nothing has helped. He’s put on weight, aged considerably, and is in constant pain. While at first, Jane was a considerate nurse and caregiver, over time Alan has become peevish, demanding, difficult, and snappy. Gradually “he had begun to change for the worse. His admirable evenness of temper, optimism, and generosity of spirit had slowly begun to leak away,” and this change in Alan’s temperament while testing the wedding vow "for better or for worse" has stretched their formerly solid relationship to breaking point.

The book begins with a typical hour at the Mackenzie house—with Alan arriving home and disrupting Jane’s activities with demands for ice packs, pillows, and juice. Alan’s partial invalidism is not helped by his attitude, and he thinks nothing of leaving trails of food and crumbs in his wake with the expectation that Jane will clean up after him. Their formerly intimate companionship has gradually been replaced by nursing duties.  Wallowing in self-loathing while struggling with depression, Alan thinks Jane pities him and he’s sick of her constant sympathetic apologies. Alan refuses to acknowledge gratitude to Jane for the myriad tasks she performs daily to ease his pain and stress. It’s as if acknowledging Jane’s caregiving role makes his helplessness a terrible reality. In turn, Jane’s horrified by the changes that have taken place in Alan. She’s not so much a wife as a nursemaid, and she realizes that she’s looking after a “giant toddler.” There’s a wedge firmly between the Mackenzies, and the situation is getting worse.

The Mackenzies both work at Corinth University. Jane, a highly organized, efficient person, manages the Matthew Unger Center for Humanities, and Alan is a professor struggling with--and unable to complete--his latest book. As part of Jane’s job, she manages the resident center for visiting fellows, and she’s supposed to facilitate their year-long residencies while diplomatically harnessing the demands of the more difficult university guest lecturers.

“Each year at the center somebody became a problem,” and it’s obvious to Jane that this year’s problem is going to be prima donna writer Delia Delaney. Delia—who comes with her own coterie of groupies and fans—is a master manipulator. She can simply charm anyone into doing whatever she wants, and unfortunately Jane seems to be the only person resistant to Delia’s wiles. Delia’s husband Henry Hull—a relatively low achiever--who exists it seems primarily to make Delia’s life smoother--announces Delia’s imminent arrival. He arrives ahead of Delia--as a sort of scout--to ensure that she gets the right room, and the correct amount attention is paid to her every whim. There are some uncanny parallels between Jane and Henry--they are both caregivers, subject to the temperamental whims of their respective spouses--Delia and Alan.

Truth and Consequences is an extremely wise and witty book. Author Alison Lurie nails marital discord in a nutshell, and there’s a degree of cynicism in taking a happy marriage and making it rapidly unravel due to a relatively simple thing like a back injury. While Alan’s back injury is very real, it’s how he copes and how it alters the Mackenzies’ roles in their marriage that become the crucial issues. Similarly, Delia suffers from migraines that create an inviolable layer of protection around her. Henry acknowledges that when Delia has a migraine, she’s a “different person.” These frequent migraines “come on when she’s under stress or when she doesn’t get what she wants.” Henry’s unenviable job is to ensure that Delia’s life goes smoothly, in order to avoid the onset of a migraine. Delia’s migraines are just as real as Alan’s back pain, but in her case, she creates an aura of delicacy that ensures that everyone treats her as though she’s a precious object in a museum.

Delia Delaney is a marvelous character. With her dramatic, exotic costumes, elusive behaviour, and devastating migraines, she soon has residents and employees of the university at her beck and call. She rapidly enlists everyone in a servile role, but she does it so charmingly, that most people are unaware that she’s manipulative and self-centered. Practical, self-sufficient Jane is the antithesis of Delia, so Jane sees through Delia. Jane doesn’t see Delia as high-strung and delicate, but demanding and selfish. To Jane, Delia’s helpless act is transparent and rather despicable.

Truth and Consequences falls down on its characterization of Jane, and this is unfortunate since she’s one of the main characters. She’s crafted too simply, and her rather pedestrian thoughts gravitate around such notions, as "I must be good,” and this doesn’t mesh with the rest of the novel. When it comes to the other characters at the university, Jane’s sagacity stands out, and this quality does not fit in with her simplistic introspection. But in spite of this flaw, Truth and Consequences is an entertaining read. And for those of us who’ve shared space with the Delia Delaneys of this world, it’s great fun to see her unleashed on these pages.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 16 reviews


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About the Author:

Alison LurieAlison Lurie was born in 1926. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1947.

Since 1970 she has taught literature, folklore, and writing at Cornell University. She is married to the writer Edward Hower and has three grown sons and three grandchildren. Her hobbies include gardening, needlepoint, and the collecting of contemporary folklore and ghost stories.

She has spent part of every winter in Key West since 1979.

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