Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Elizabeth Dewberry’s first two novels, published under the name of Elizabeth Dewberry Vaughn, were both first-person narratives in which a young, lower-middle-class Southern woman describes an agonizing conflict between the expectations of her society and her own needs. In both Many Things Have Happened Since He Died and Here Are the Highlights (1990) and Break the Heart of Me (1994), the heroine is torn between the patriarchal doctrines of Christian fundamentalism, the faith in which she was reared, and her own sense of right and wrong. The protagonist of the first novel has to deal with an abusive husband, and the heroine of the second with crippling memories of childhood sexual abuse. When the books end, each woman has acquired both a new understanding of herself and a firm faith in her own worth.
Like these novels, Sacrament of Lies is set in the South and narrated in the first person by a young woman protagonist who is struggling to survive in a male-dominated society. However, the milieu is very different. What is a very intense private conflict between a state governor and his daughter takes place in public places, in fine restaurants, in elegant ballrooms, in lavish hotel suites, and in the palatial governor’s mansion itself. Moreover, the social prominence of the characters and the governor’s obsession with his political future mean that even at the most private moments, the public is always invisibly present, dictating his course of action.
The setting of Sacrament of Lies is southern Louisiana, primarily Baton Rouge, the state capital, and nearby New Orleans. The events related by the narrator occur over the course of a year, from Mardi Gras to Mardi Gras. However, the novel actually begins in the afternoon of the second Mardi Gras, with the heroine, Grayson Guillory, sitting on the steps of St. Louis Cathedral, half-expecting to be murdered at the behest of her father, and it ends at midnight, when she returns to the Cathedral after a confrontation in which it is he who is killed. In the intervening chapters, Grayson recalls the events of the year before, beginning with the death of her mother, Marie Guillory, whose death, Grayson believes, was not the suicide it was claimed to be but cold-blooded murder. Eventually Grayson finds proof that her father, Governor Guillory, killed her mother with the aid of the family physician, Dr. M. W. (“Mike”) Fontenot, and Grayson’s own husband, Carter.
Grayson’s quest for the truth is made more difficult by her doubts about her own mental soundness. Over the years, she saw her mother periodically succumb to alcoholism, depression, and paranoia and becoming increasingly dependent on the medications prescribed for her by Dr. Fontenot. It is only natural that Grayson should ask herself whether her suspicions are just manifestations of an inherited weakness, activated by the traumatic moment when, summoned by her father, she entered her parents’ hotel suite and saw her mother lying dead on the bed.
In some ways, it would be simpler for Grayson to believe that her husband and her father are right: She is going through a period of mental fragility, a bad dream from which she will awaken. However, Governor Guillory and Carter are a little too solicitous for her to believe they are really interested in her welfare. Months later, at the Inaugural Ball, Carter confirms Grayson’s suspicions when he tries to force upon her some unidentifiable pills he says came from Dr. Fontenot. Now Grayson knows that Carter has been ordered to render her harmless by keeping her so drugged that she will seem irrational. Then, not only will no one believe any accusations she makes, but in due course she can be put away in a mental institution.
However, there is nothing wrong with Grayson’s thought processes. Indeed, she can see very clearly why her father would want Marie out of the picture. His primary motive is political: He wants to run for president of the United States and cannot expect to be elected if his wife is unable to function in the role of First Lady. A secondary motive is the fact that he has been having an affair with Marie’s sister Audrey, who becomes his wife a few months after Marie’s death. If Audrey had any doubts, she is now effectively silenced; moreover, her own ambition to become America’s First Lady gives her every reason to believe whatever her new husband tells...
(The entire section is 1798 words.)
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