Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


Limitations by Scott Turow








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Novelist and lawyer Scott Turow reprises characters George Mason and Rusty Sabich in his latest novel, Limitations. I gave up counting how many different meanings of ‘limitations’ that Turow explores on the tightly written pages of the terse book. As an appellate judge, Mason is trying to decide a case that leads him to recall an episode of his own life that he regrets. Distracted by his wife’s illness, Mason also deals with threats that are coming to him via e-mail. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 3, “Hospital Call,” pp. 23-27:


George races downthe judges’ private corridor toward the conference chambers adjacent to the appellate courtroom. He is actually a few minutes ahead of schedule for his meeting with Purfoyle and Koll, hut he wants to phone Patrice, and he stops by a long window where cell reception is better. It is a goofy rectitude, he knows, uncomfort­ably reminiscent of his father, to avoid personal calls from the County line in his chambers, but as a judge he never shakes the expectation that he must lead by example in matters large and small. He wears a suit and tie each day and requires similar apparel of his staff, notwithstanding the more casual attire favored by his colleagues when they do not have to appear in the courtroom. He is determined that, if nothing else, he will always look the part: tall, trim, gray­haired, and handsome in a conventional middle-aged way. Standard-issue white guy.

“Fine. Tired. Not a bad day at all,” Patrice says when he reaches her at the hospital. He has tried her several times this morning, hut the line has been constantly engaged. At the moment, Patrice’s inter­action with the human race is confined to the telephone. “They think my Geiger levels may be down enough tonight to let you in the room. Most women want a man’s heart, Georgie. I bet you were never counting on risking your thyroid.”

“Gladly, mate,” he answers, a term of mutual endearment. “Any organ you like.” The Masons have always relished each other’s com­pany and the way they generally ride along on a current of low-voltage humor. But at the moment, his druthers are to he more sincere. To many men George knows, marriage is a war against their longings. Yet he is among the happy few. For more than thirty years now, he has been able to say that he has wanted no one more than Patrice.

These sentiments swamp him frequently these days. The nodule on Patrice’s thyroid was discovered on February 10, and when he stood in a store a day later reading the humid poetry on several valen­tines, he actually wept. But at the moment he feels obliged to keep this torrent of affection to himself. For Patrice right now the only ac­ceptable behavior is what she deems ‘normal’—no dramatics and certainly no proclamations of a kind that Patrice, being Patrice, would deride as ‘soft and runny.’

“How about if I bring dinner?” George asks. “We can eat to­gether. Any cravings?”

“No more limp green beans. Something with spice.”


“Perfect. After eight. That’ll be thirty-six hours. But they won’t let you stay long, mate.”

Yesterday at 6:00 AM., he’d brought Patrice to West Bank Lutheran—Sinai. There she’d swallowed a large white pill full of iodine-131. Now she may not have any physical contact with other human beings. The radiation broiling through her and eradicating every thyroid cell, especially the wayward ones that have wandered dangerously into other portions of her body, might also kill the healthy gland in someone else. ‘The treatment has a long record of success, but it is disquieting to experience. At the moment, Patrice would be less isolated on a lepers’ island, where at least she would have company. At West Bank, she is housed alone in a small, white room of cinder block laid over a lining of lead. The decorating aims to avoid the sterile appearance of a hospital room, with the result that the space instead has the dismal look of a cheap motel, with scarred furniture and a thin chenille spread on the bed. Any item that will exit the area must be destroyed by special staff or quarantined—the books and magazines Patrice has been reading, her undergarments, and the leavings in the bedpan she must use. Her pulse and temperature are monitored electronically, and the or­derlies serve her meals through a lead flap in the door.

Yesterday, even George was not permitted in her room. Instead, his wife and he spoke through telephone handsets on either side of a large window cut into the wall adjoining her bed, on which Patrice can raise the shade. For George, the comparison with his profes­sional life was unavoidable. Flow many clients in how many institu­tions had he conversed with this way? And how many of their fellow inmates had he surreptitiously eyed with the usual mix of empathy and judgment, as the prisoners pawed the glass or wept, with a child or lover on the other side, feeling only now the sharpest tooth of con­finement, and thus of crime? With his own wife isolated this way, George could not shake a miserable, low conviction that he had failed. Their conversation was listless and unsettled. The glass between them might well have been her illness. After thirty-three years, it has turned out that their life together is a matter of grace rather than mutual will. Patrice is sick and he is not. ‘There is really no such thing,’ one social worker warned a support group for spouses, ‘as having cancer together.’

“Didn’t you have arguments this morning?” Patrice asks. “How were they?”

“Lackluster in most cases. But we just heard Warnovits. The high school rape case?”

“The one on the news? Were the attorneys good?”

“Not especially, but I was sitting with Nathan Koll, who planted a roadside bomb for the lawyers. Now I’ve got to go to conference and watch him wrap his arms around himself so he can pat his own back. I’m due now.”

“Then go ahead, George. I’ll call if I fail the Geiger counter.”

Clicking off, he peers from the window into the canyon of U.S. 843 that separates the Central Branch Courthouse from the Center City, and beyond that to the downtown towers, stolid monuments to capital. Summer is coming, a season of ripeness and promise, but the feeling in his own soul remains autumnal. George is off his stride and knows it. Revered as calm and poised, he is lately more likely to become unsettled, as he has been by Warnovits. He has occasionally turned snappish with his staff and has grown uncharacteristically ab­sentminded. About ten days ago, he lost his cell phone—who knows where? He noticed it was gone on his way back from a Bar Associa­tion luncheon he’d attended with several of his colleagues. He had Dineesha ransack his chambers while his clerks called all over the Center City. For the moment, he is using Patrice’s spare.

Some might think that it is #1 getting on his nerves. That proba­bly hasn’t helped, but this moodiness predates the first e-mail George received from his anonymous tormentor. Instead his unease correlates more clearly with the time of Patrice’s diagnosis. He is convinced in every fiber that his wife is not going to die. The doctors have done everything short of issue guarantees. Her chances ap­proach nineteen in twenty, and even those odds take no account of the robust good health in which she otherwise remains—lean, ath­letic, tanned, still beautiful.

Yet as George’s friend Harrison Oakey has put it, serious illness at this age is like the lights flashing in the theater lobby. If life is a three-act play, then the curtain has gone up on the finale. After John Ban­ion had read #1’s message saying ‘You’ll die,’ the judge had tried to settle his clerk with humor while they awaited Marina. ‘This guy has no future in journalism,’ George told him, ‘because that’s not break­ing news.’

Still, irony gets you only so far. The facts settle hard. And with them comes an inevitable calculation of pluses and minuses. George tends to be unsparing, even harsh, in his self-assessments. Husband. Father. Lawyer. Judge. These days, he seems to be keeping a cool eye on the scoreboard.


Turow does a great job at conveying the humanity of a judge, and the complexity of human interactions. Limitations will encourage readers to think about the law, the past and the consequences of personal decisions.


Steve Hopkins, March 23, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the April 2007 issue of Executive Times


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