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A couple's uncoupling

Truth and Consequences A Novel Alison Lurie Viking: 232 pp., $24.95

October 30, 2005|Merle Rubin | Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review.

IT is a (sad) truth widely (if not universally) acknowledged that love and marriage don't always go together like a horse and carriage. This truth -- and its consequences -- are a subject that much engages the imagination of Alison Lurie, whose gift for social satire has earned her comparisons with the genre's great progenitor, Jane Austen.

A delightful writer whose novels are a pleasure to read, Lurie may not operate on quite the same level as Austen or that still-underrated comic genius Barbara Pym, but her fiction is perceptive, funny and written with flair and warmth. She has earned her place as a polished American exponent of the predominantly British tradition of social comedy.

"Truth and Consequences" in some ways recalls Lurie's earlier gems, "The War Between the Tates," which featured a shaky marriage on the upstate New York campus of Corinth University, and "Foreign Affairs," wherein a bright and attractive but plain-Janeish heroine was pitted against a curvaceous but slovenly vamp with artistic gifts and a temperament to match. Speaking of Janes, plain or Austen, the heroine of "Truth and Consequences," a formerly happy wife and administrator at the same campus, just happens to bear that name.

As the story opens, Jane and Alan Mackenzie have been married for 16 years. She is 40, he in his early 50s. When Jane, a sensible, down-to-earth townie, first met Alan, a dashing expert on architectural history, the romantic girl deep beneath her practical exterior felt sure she had found her Prince Charming: tall and athletic, yet intellectual and aesthetic. Over the years, princely Alan developed, as she'd hoped, into a "king" -- a lovable husband and respected member of the academic community -- while her own career also flourished. But then something happened that radically altered the Mackenzies' marriage.

A supposedly minor volleyball injury transformed Jane's strong and agile husband into a semi-invalid plagued by debilitating back pain. Having been through a variety of ineffective treatments, including surgery, Alan has grown depressed and querulous. Until recently, Jane has coped with the circumstances: "[E]ver since she was a seven-year-old at Sunday school, it had been Jane's secret plan" to excel at being "a good person." Lurie, who's taught and written about folklore and fairy tales, is amusingly insightful on the long-lasting effects of childhood reading: "When Alan first became ill [Jane] had almost welcomed it as an opportunity. She had been lucky in life; now she would be the patient and reasonable and loving spouse of an admirable man who had hurt his back and was therefore sometimes impatient and unreasonable and unloving, but would soon be well. It was a test of her virtue.... For months Jane had been wonderful to Alan, and Alan had been grateful. But now she was tired of being wonderful, and Alan, she suspected, was tired of being grateful."

Poor Jane is riddled with guilt at the resentment she feels toward Alan, for she fears that it makes her a bad person. But how does her unfortunate husband feel? He, after all, is the one downing pills that render him listless and groggy but still unable to sit or stand for more than five minutes without pain, let alone engage in the physical activities he used to love. We soon find out what he thinks, because Lurie tells the Mackenzies' story in 20 alternating chapters -- the odd-numbered ones present Jane's perspective, the even-numbered ones are Alan's.

Like a folk or fairy tale, "Truth and Consequences" unfolds along the lines of a strongly constructed formal pattern -- a dance, almost. What begins as a pas de deux soon expands into a pas de quatre with the arrival of a second couple: glamorous visiting fellow Delia Delaney and her down-to-earth spouse, Henry Hull.

Delia, a bestselling author of "womanist" poetry and fairy tales, is not merely famous and lovely to look at but also gifted with a knack for manipulating people. Jane is immune to her charm. Alan is not; indeed, so smitten is he that he finds ways of overcoming his pain whenever he's with her. Unlike Jane, Delia won't lift a finger to help Alan, but her self-absorption, alas, is part of her allure. Delia herself is a longtime martyr to migraines (the price she pays for artistic creativity, she tells Alan). In the Delaney-Hull partnership, she's the invalid, Henry the devoted caregiver.

Before long, sensible Jane is just as wildly smitten with sensible Henry as Alan is with Delia. Although the brunt of the satire is directed at the honey-voiced man-trap Delia, whose prattle about artistic devotion masks an agenda more concerned with money and getting her way, Lurie allows that there is some truth in what Delia has to say and in what she represents. Alan's attraction to her is the catalyst not only for new romance but also for a new creativity in his work.

There's something flippant, even shallow, about Lurie's treatment of the very real problems of physical pain and disability, and one might say the same about her conception of a "good marriage" and what it means to be virtuous. This may be due in part to the brisk, insouciant tone that's the keynote of her comedy: It gives her work a certain poise, but it may also limit her ability to explore the depths below the surface -- something Pym manages without sacrificing lightness of tone or a sense of fun.

Though Lurie may lack the profundity of Austen and Pym -- and the social and intellectual acuity of her fellow American satirist Mary McCarthy -- she is nonetheless a writer well worth cherishing for giving us novels that are as gracefully edifying as they are incontrovertibly entertaining. *

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