Using the same setting as her War Between the Tates (1974), Alison Lurie has placed Truth and Consequences in the college town of Corinth, loosely modeled after Ithaca, New York, the location of Cornell University, where Lurie has taught in the English department for more than thirty years. As with many of her other novels, including her Pulitzer Prize-winning Foreign Affairs (1984), Lurie focuses in Truth and Consequences on middle-class professional couples from academia as they struggle through the vicissitudes of everyday life and endure midlife crises.
Alan MacKenzie, a professor of architectural history, is an acknowledged expert on eighteenth century architecture, a creator of follies, models of architectural ruins, and a recently named fellow at the Matthew Unger Center for the Humanities, which his wife, Jane, directs. For sixteen years the two have enjoyed a satisfying marriage, being friends, lovers, and helpmates to each other. Their marriage had been stress-free and untested until Alan, priding himself on his vitality and welcoming the opportunity to display it at a departmental picnic, plays volleyball, injuring his back. Fifteen months later, he cannot sit for an entire meal, moans when he gets up, and no longer drives a car. He has tried physical therapy, pain pills, acupuncture, injections of cortisone, a back brace, and surgery, but nothing has helped. The drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, have added the side effects of constipation, headaches, sleeplessness, and fatigue to his original complaint. The chronic pain has altered his entire life. He questions his love for Jane, gains twenty pounds, and has become self-centered, irritable, and depressed. He has drifted away from his usual friends, who cannot understand his preoccupation with pain, and seeks support and solace from fellow pain sufferers.
Alternating chapters provide the different viewpoints of Jane and Alan as their marriage deteriorates. Therefore, the reader witnesses the change both in Alan’s life and in Jane’s. Jane married a vigorous and confident man, once imagining him as her prince, and now has an invalid for a husband for whom lovemaking is too painful. The transformation in Alan has been so complete that she, one day, fails to recognize him: “Someone was getting out of a taxi, paying the driver, and then starting slowly down the long driveway: an aging man with slumped shoulders, a sunken chest, and a protruding belly, leaning on a cane . . . there was something about him that made her uneasy and a little frightened. He reminded her of other unwelcome figures: a property tax inspector . . . an FBI official.”
Instead of being his wife, she has become his personal assistant, putting on and removing his shoes, retrieving newspapers, getting ice packs and pillows, and going to the store for requested items while neglecting her own gardening interests. Her personality is also altering; previously responsible and composed, she is often irritable and indignant about her added burden. She feels guilty when she sees him as a “pale, fat, weak, greedy, demanding person” and selfish when she resents Alan’s requests because, after all, he is in constant pain. Pain has become the central feature of their marriage and has taken its toll: “For months Jane has been wonderful to Alan, and Alan has been grateful. But now she was tired of being wonderful, and Alan, she suspected, was tired of being grateful.”
Probably incapable of meeting the physical demands of teaching, Alan fortunately is named one of the five fellows at the center. Another fellow is Delia Delaney, a southern writer who specializes in fairy tales. On one hand, Delia is beautiful, suggesting with her red-gold hair, rosy skin, and her silver-gray eyes a Botticelli painting. On the other, she is narcissistic, manipulative, and needy. She arrives at the center making demands, insisting on exchanging offices, commandeering a couch from a reception room, and appropriating the office’s lime green poster paper for her drafts. People fall under her spell and rush to accommodate her: Susie, Jane’s assistant,...
(The entire section is 1697 words.)