"The best thing you can do, always, is tell the truth and take the consequences." That's what Alan MacKenzie's father used to tell him, but now that Alan is in his early fifties and carrying on an affair with "the famous writer Delia Delaney, the author of Womenfaith (spiritual essays), Dreamworks (poetry), and Moon Tales (modern fairy stories)," he isn't giving his father's advice the time of day. He's been married to pert, perky Jane for 16 years, but the bloom fell off that rose a while back, certainly during the 16 months he's been wracked by debilitating back pain. Delia offers him something new and exciting and even makes him feel better, so with all that coming his way, what's a lie or two between husband and wife?
Of course, Jane is lying, too, and so is Delia, and so is Henry Hull, her lover (sort of) and companion. They're all living in what the nonpareil songwriter/singer/pianist Dave Frishberg calls "a blizzard of lies," or, as Jane imagines it, "a pit of lies." By this point, she's escaped the house she and Alan share not far from the campus of Corinth (read: Cornell) University and fled to her parents' house. The pit just gets deeper and deeper: "She would have to drive to her house and collect her makeup and her hairbrush, which would mean seeing Alan again and trying not to get into another conversation full of lies, his lies of fact and her lies of omission. Then she would have to drive back to her parents' house and lie some more to them."
So it goes in the groves of academe as envisioned by Alison Lurie, who has made a career out of writing satirical novels about love and its discontents among the professoriat. The best of these, The War Between the Tates (1974), nicely impales its academics against the background of the 1960s counterculture, and Foreign Affairs (1984) does the same against the background of Anglo-American rivalries and tensions. Still, by contrast with the most rapier-like American practitioners of the academic novel, Randall Jarrell and Mary McCarthy, Lurie tends toward a kinder view of her professors and administrators, perhaps because she has spent the past three and a half decades teaching literature and other subjects at Cornell, where she is now professor emerita. She is both of the academic establishment and apart from it, and her tightrope-walking act is often apparent in her fiction.
Truth and Consequences is a case in point. It is amiable, quietly witty and readable -- Lurie is always readable -- but it hasn't much crackle or pop. Its four main characters are neither as interesting nor as sympathetic as Lurie obviously fancies them to be, so one reads the novel with clinical detachment rather than deep engagement. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but reading at a remove isn't as pleasurable as total immersion; to put it another way, when Jane and Alan and Delia and Henry finally get their more or less just deserts, you really don't much care.
Still, the novel moves along briskly. Jane is 40, Alan about a dozen years older. She is the administrative director of Corinth University's Matthew Unger Center for the Humanities (MUCH), "an endowed facility for visiting scholars and artists housed in a handsome Victorian mansion just off campus." Alan is a fellow in history at the center, with a specialty in 18th-century architecture; he has an endowed chair at the university but has been shuffled off to MUCH in the hope that it will place less strain on his back, since he will "have peace and quiet and no stairs to climb."
Alan, though, is an impatient patient. He is no longer the "curious, skeptical and easygoing" Californian whom Jane had fallen in love with and married. Now, in the chilly landscape of upstate New York, wholly convinced "that his back would never get better, and in fact would probably get worse," he has changed, and scarcely for the better: "His admirable evenness of temper, optimism, and generosity of spirit had slowly begun to leak away. He had become overweight and unattractive, he had become self-centered and touchy."
Jane does the best she can, babying and waiting on him. He's grateful, sort of, but quick to complain and to indulge in self-pity: "He had begun to treat Jane as if she were hired help: he no longer always thanked her for anything she did, or apologized for his requests." Considering that by this point he has become entangled with Delia, that's no surprise. She is "extraordinarily beautiful . . . tall and fair, with masses of heavy red-gold hair, elaborately arranged in a series of braids and puffs and tendrils in the manner of Botticelli's Simonetta, whom she strongly resembled." She's a little girl from West Virginia who's escaped the mountains and now writes immensely popular books "inspired by Southern popular traditions and ghost stories and American Indian legends." She's a star on the literary circuit, wowing audiences with her beauty and charm, signing books and posters and anything else people thrust at her.
She's also an egotist and a user. Precisely why she decides to use Alan is something of a mystery, but she understands his talents in ways that Jane may not, and in exchange for a few snuggles she acquires him as an ally -- an ally, specifically, against Jane, who almost immediately spots her for exactly what she is and suspects that MUCH will soon find itself throwing away a lot of money on a visiting writer who isn't likely to do much visiting, who will use Corinth for so long as it suits her convenience and then decamp.
Then Jane meets Henry Hull, and everything changes. He's handsome, kind, attentive -- everything that Alan hasn't been for months. He's also smitten by her but cautious about making "the move she had guiltily desired and dreaded." They meet regularly at the local farmer's market, and soon enough, one thing leads to another: "She had not only become a resentful unloving wife but was on the verge of becoming an unfaithful one." Once that happens, and once Alan figures out how to love up Delia without making his back even worse, the moment arrives when the lying has to stop -- or at least ratchet down -- and the consequences have to be faced.
Lurie tells the tale in chapters that alternate between Alan's point of view and Jane's. Not surprisingly, her own sympathies seem to tilt at least slightly toward Jane, but she's fair to both of her main characters and grants them what they more or less deserve, which in Alan's case isn't much. She knows academia inside and out and gets in a few well-aimed shots at some of its many foibles and poses; she also knows how dependent academia has become of late upon well-heeled outsiders who are willing to abet its empire-building instincts in exchange for a bit of tender ego-stroking. That the benefactress of the Unger Center is in fact a pretty smart cookie doesn't disguise the con game that's being played by both sides.
Now in her late seventies, with a dozen and a half books to her credit and a number of prizes in her pocket, Lurie shows no signs of slowing down, but she does appear to be mellowing. Her previous novel, The Last Resort (1998), took a kindly if wry view of its characters, and so does Truth and Consequences. By contrast with her best work it's fairly thin, but thin for her would be thick for most other American novelists these days. *
Jonathan Yardley is the Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for The Washington Post. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.