Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Truth and Consequences by Alison Lurie








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Alison Lurie sets her latest novel, Truth and Consequences, in a setting recognized by all as the university where she teaches, Cornell. In fewer than 250 pages, and in less than a full college term, Lurie allows readers to observe four key characters become entangled in a web of lies, become blinded by truth, and be called on to face the consequences. What readers don’t get in Truth and Consequences is a lot of character depth or development. There’s just enough exposition to rationalize motivations, understand mutually driven manipulations, and recognize these four individuals as types that each reader would recognize. Perhaps that’s the real skill Lurie conveys in Truth and Consequences: her spare character development tells us just enough about each character, and never too much, a very efficient approach. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter Four, pp. 38-49:



On Labor Day, in the big bedroom that he now only occa­sionally shared with his wife, Alan Mackenzie stood at the window looking down over his back lawn, which sloped gently toward the woods and the silvery lake beyond. Usually empty; today the scene would soon be crowded. Students from the University Catering Service, whose truck was parked in Alan’s driveway, had just set up two long folding tables and were covering them with white cloths. Next they carried in a large cut-glass punch bowl, plastic plates and glasses, buckets of ice, and bins of soda and juice bottles. Then came plates of cheese and vegetables covered in plastic wrap, and containers of crackers and dips. One of the stu­dents, as she crossed the bristly grass that had just been cut that morning, stumbled in her high heels and fell, dropping a bowl of potato chips. Alan winced; every accident now reminded him of his own accident, his own disability and constant pain. Was the girl hurt, would she too soon become a wretched invalid? Apparently not. She rose, stooped gracefully to pick up the bowl, and hurried on, leaving a spray of yellow chips like broken flowers on the grass.

“How’re you doing?” Jane said, coming into the room behind him. She was wearing faded jeans and a T-shirt, and looked a little worn.

“Not too great,” Alan replied, half turning around. “I’ve got that pain in my shoulder again.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry”

“I don’t think those goddamn exercises have helped at all; in fact I think they’ve made it worse.” He rotated his arm, wincing.

“Maybe you should stop doing them, then.”

“I’ve got to do something. I can’t go on like this, I can hardly type anymore. I probably never should have gone to that new phys­ical therapist. She seemed so eager to help, but I didn’t trust her from the start. I’m not sure she even understood my X-rays.”

“It could be.”

“I told her there was a bone spur, but I don’t think she really lis­tened. I should have waited until the other woman got back from vacation, the one I saw before. Or at least until I talked to the doc­tor again.”

Jane, who was standing in the walk-in closet changing her clothes, did not reply Probably she too hadn’t really been listening, he thought. More and more often, she didn’t listen to him, or didn’t listen carefully. In a way he didn’t blame her: what he had to say was usually unpleasant and often monotonous. But in a way he did blame her. Impatient, troubled, he moved toward her.

“What I want to know is, am I ever going to get better,” he de­manded loudly and suddenly “What do you think?”

“I—I don’t know,” Jane stuttered, clearly frightened by his tone, clutching a white silk slip against her naked body.

“Yes, but what do you think, honestly?” he insisted, moving nearer.

“I don’t know, how could I know?” she said. “I mean, most peo­ple do; that’s—that’s what everyone says.”

“And some people don’t get better. I’m sorry,” he added, realiz­ing that Jane had burst into tears. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” He put his arm around her, touching her smooth bare back for the first time in weeks. “Of course you can’t know. Come on. Stop crying. Get dressed and go on down to your party.”

“It’s not just my party, it’s yours too,” Jane said, her sobs begin­ning to subside.

“Whatever.” Alan gave a sigh and moved toward the window. “I still don’t see why you had to have it here, though,” he said pres­ently looking down again at the lawn, over which the caterers were now distributing white plastic chairs.

“But we talked about it already, we agreed,” Jane said, now in al­most a normal tone of voice. “We’re having it here so you don’t have to spend any more time socializing than is comfortable for you. You can come in and lie down whenever you feel tired.”

“I feel tired already,” said Alan. “I always feel tired.”

“You only need to put in an appearance—speak to the people on the Council, meet the other new Fellows—” Jane, now wearing a tan shirtwaist dress and low-heeled white sandals, came to look out of the window beside him. “Do you think the tables are too close together?” she asked.

He made no comment.

“And why are they setting the chairs in rows? We’re not having a lecture. I told them already—I’ve got to go down. Come whenever you can.”

Alan did not move. In fact, he understood very well why the Matthew Unger Center reception was being held at his house: it was not for his convenience, but because Jane was determined that he should appear at it, demonstrating proper gratitude for his faculty fellowship. She knew that if the party had taken place anywhere else he would probably have refused to come, or would have wanted to be driven home early Or, possibly, he would have gotten drunk. Al­cohol cut his pain, though only briefly and if he drank enough to make any real difference he would begin to feel dizzy and sick and behave badly

Alan was only minimally grateful for his fellowship. For one thing, he was convinced that it had been Jane’s idea, though she de­nied this. In the eagerness of his colleagues to recommend him he saw mainly self-interest, for it meant that they would not have to fill in when he was too ill to meet a class, and would not have to see or hear about his pain and disability. On the other hand, he was grate­ful that he would not have to see them so often and experience their condescending pity.

Alan Mackenzie was a proud man, and in the past his pride had been of the sort known as “proper,” meaning that it had been well grounded in fact. It was grounded, for example, in his professional success, his health and good looks and athletic prowess; his attrac­tive, affectionate, and intelligent wife; and his beautiful hundred-and-fifty-year-old house with its view of the lake. He had never called attention to these advantages—rather, he often spoke freely and humorously of his disadvantages: his lack of skill at golf, his failure to graduate from Yale with honors. Nevertheless, one or two envious friends and colleagues had sometimes mockingly re­ferred to him as The Mackenzie, as if he were a Scottish clan chieftain. Now, of course, it was no longer necessary for him to deflect envy, since his friends and colleagues pitied rather than en­vied him.

The move to the Unger Center last week had been difficult. Jane and a team from Buildings and Grounds had packed and transported Alan’s books and papers, his computer and printer, and the drafting table he now used as a desk because he could not sit down to work. But he had had to select what was to be moved and organize the packing and unpacking. Presently, becoming impatient with the process, he had joined in, and had wrenched his shoulder again.

And even after everything was in place at the Center Alan hadn’t been able to get down to work. It was really too soon to start his book on religious architecture in America: his research wasn’t com­plete. Nearly half the buildings he wanted to discuss hadn’t been photographed right, and until he got well they never would be. If he ever got well. “But you can write up the material you have, can’t you?” Jane had asked. She didn’t understand that it didn’t work that way The ideas and the research had to come first, then the outline, and then finally the writing.

Alan had always been interested in religion, maybe too interested for his own good. But his main feeling now was relief that he had gotten over his early beliefs at college. If he still had faith he would have had to consider the spiritual meaning of the last sixteen months of severe, unrelenting pain. Was he being punished, and if so, for what? His life had not been blameless, but he had never been guilty of murder or plagiarism, never cheated on his taxes. He had not stolen anything since sixth grade, and it was years since he had committed adultery On the other hand, he had not been so good that God would have been tempted to test his faith as he had Job’s.

Outside, the lawn was beginning to fill with guests, among whom presumably were the four other Fellows, whom Alan had not yet met. Sighing, he took up his cane and went down to join them. I’ll give it half an hour, Jane will have to be satisfied with that, he decided, clenching his teeth as he descended the staircase, one ago­nizing step at a time.

Twenty-five minutes later he had drunk two glasses of semi-alcoholic pink grapefruit punch, which only dulled the pain slightly He had eaten too much Brie and crackers, spoken to the five mem­bers of the Humanities Council and three of their wives, and met three of the four other Fellows. Only Delia Delaney, this year’s star, was missing, and already her absence was beginning to be unfavor­ably commented on. From time to time Alan had observed Jane looking at him, her expression a mixture of encouragement and concern, and given her a small, ironic nod or wave. See? I’m doing what you wanted me to do, okay? it conveyed.

His back hurt worse and worse. He was about to excuse himself, and had turned to set down his empty plastic wineglass, when he saw an extraordinarily beautiful woman approaching. She was 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.

“You must be Alan Mackenzie, who’s won all those prizes,” she said. Her voice was low, vibrating, breathy, with a warm Southern accent; her gauzy white dress was cut low, revealing full rose-pink breasts.

“So they tell me,” he admitted. It was true that two of his books, both now out of print, had been given awards.

“I’m Delia Delaney” She smiled and looked up at him,

Of course, Alan almost said. He had seen a black and white photo somewhere, but it hadn’t revealed Delia’s spectacular coloring, in­cluding the satiny rose-flushed skin and the silver-gray eyes that matched her lacy shawl.

“I’m so happy to be here.” She sighed as if with actual happi­ness. “And now I want to see your famous folly I’ve heard so much about it.”

“That’s it, over there.” Alan pointed to where, beyond the last curve of the flower bed, a gray stone arch was partly visible. “Help yourself.”

“But I want you to show it to me.” Delia put a warm hand on his arm.

Phrases of polite but honest refusal passed through Alan’s mind. I’m sorry, but I have a bad back, I can’t walk that far. I was just about to go lie down. But pride and good manners and Delia’s touch on his arm outweighed them, and he allowed himself to be led painfully down the lawn toward the miniature triumphal arch he had constructed three years ago to celebrate the publication of British Ruins and Fol­lies. He had to admit that it still looked good—maybe even better now that ivy covered one side of the arch and a velvety dark-green moss had spread over the lowest stones.

“But I know it!” Delia exclaimed, laughing. “It’s the arch in Washington Square, isn’t that right?”

“Yeah,” Alan agreed. “About one-quarter the size, of course.”

“It’s wonderful,” she breathed.

“Thank you.”

“Most people don’t recognize it.” And they don’t always think it’s wonderful, either, he remembered. Jane, for instance, did not think so. When he had first shown her the drawings, she had seen them as a mildly entertaining joke, but once she realized that he was actually going to build the thing in their back yard she was clearly puzzled and dismayed, though she had never openly said so.

“I knew it at once,” Delia said. “My best friend in school moved to New York when I was about seven, and she sent me a postcard of that arch. I had it up on my wall at home for the longest time. I used to imagine I was a princess going to my coronation, and I would drive through Washington Square and under the arch in my golden coach.” She looked up at Alan with an uneven smile, as if she were about to weep. Then, blinking her long-lashed gray eyes, she glanced down.

“Oh, look at all these delicious little white flowers growing in the grass,” she said. “What are they called?”

“I haven’t any idea,” Alan admitted. “Jane would know. My wife. Have you met her?”

“Oh yes,” Delia said, smiling, and somehow this time her smile conveyed the idea that this had not been an especially exciting meeting.

“She could tell you their Latin name.”

“I don’t want to know their Latin name,” Delia said. “It’s bad enough knowing that my Latin name is Homo sapiens. I try to forget that sort of thing as fast as I can.” She began to walk around the arch, admiring it from all angles, trailing her gauzy skirts and silver net shawl in the long flowery grass. Alan, steadying himself with his cane, followed.

“Marvelous,” she murmured. “Are there any others? Someone told me there was at least one other.”

Alan hesitated. There was another folly the ruined chapel, but except for Jane and the graduate students who had helped him, al­most nobody had seen it. He had wanted to present it formally, as a completed project, and had often refused to allow spectators. “Well, there is one,” he admitted, not wanting to lie. “But I can’t show it to anyone yet, it’s not finished. I hurt my back, and then—”

“I must see it,” she interrupted.

“Not now.”

“Please.” Delia gave him an almost absurdly seductive smile.

“It wouldn’t be right. I’m sure you don’t publish your stories be­fore they’re finished.”

“Please.” She pouted like a hurt child; her soft mauve-red lower lip trembled. “I’ll only be here in Corinth for a few months; I may never have another chance.”

“Well. All right,” Alan heard himself say He led the way farther down the lawn, past two old apple trees and a tall, thorny mass of blackberry bushes that were now turning a dark, smoky red. “There you are.” He indicated a long shingled building with a low tower. Only part of the roof and two and a half walls were standing, the latter overgrown with a tangle of climbing roses. “I didn’t build the original structure,” he said. “It was the chicken house when this was a farm.”

“But now it’s a ruined church,” Delia said. “A miniature Tintern Abbey”


She looked him full in the face, her silver eyes wide. “Amazing. You’re a real artist.”

“Thank you.” No, it’s not so bad, he thought, looking at the three miniature Victorian Gothic window frames he had installed along the side wall. Even if I never write another book, I can be proud of this.

“I want to walk around it.”

“All right.” Alan turned toward the blackberry bushes, but Delia did not follow.

“No, no!” she cried. “We mustn’t go that way, that’s widdershins.”

“What?” He stopped.

Widdershins, against the sun. You must never walk widdershins around a church.”

“Really? Why not?”

“What they say back home is, the Devil will carry you off. Or you could just disappear. It’s a superstition, of course. But you never know.” She laughed lightly

“But this isn’t a real church,” Alan said. “It’s an abandoned chicken house. It’s not consecrated or anything.”

“Maybe. But I don’t want to do it anyhow.” She turned resolutely in the other direction, and Alan, shaking his head, followed her. Clearly Delia Delaney was a flake. At the same time, though he was not and had never been superstitious, the memory came to him of the church in New Mexico where he had seen the lizard, and he re­called that he had in fact walked around it in what Delia Delaney if she hadn’t just been joking, would consider the dangerous direction.

Completing the circuit, Delia stepped over a heap of grass into the center of the building. “‘Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang,’” she quoted, looking around.

“Well yes, I suppose so. Or clucked. After all, they were chick­ens.” He followed her, and they stood where the altar would have been—its absence, or presence, suggested by a hummock of stones, grass, and tangled dark-green creeper.

“I don’t recognize the original—is there one?”

“Yes, partly” Alan had the sense that he was recklessly giving away secrets. “Thyme Chapel, on campus. It’s Victorian Gothic, built about 1880.”

“Oh. I haven’t seen that yet. I really haven’t seen anything on campus but the library and the Center. But your chapel is perfect anyhow.”

“It’s not finished, you know. I wanted to build up that third wall a bit more. And maybe fill in some of the windows with stained glass.”

“Yes, I can see it,” Delia breathed. “All purple and gold and cobalt blue, with swirling iridescent Tiffany flowers.”

“That’s sort of what I planned. There’s several like that in the campus chapel. But these would be original designs.”

“With the Holy Ghost as a white chicken.”

“That’s an idea.” Alan laughed. She’s witty as well as beautiful, he thought.

“I love the wild roses.”

“I can’t claim credit for that. They were always here. I think they were just waiting until the chickens left.”

“You’re lucky. And will there be more follies?”

“I don’t know. Not now. I once thought I might do the Plaza fountain, or an Italian Renaissance bridge over there by the brook.” He gestured widely and unwisely with his sore arm, and winced. “But then my back went out—” For almost fifteen minutes, Alan realized, he had forgotten that he was in pain.

“And after that?”

“Oh, I had plans for a lot more—drawings and site elevations and everything. But now—” As if he had deliberately recalled it, a spasm struck him: the lizard dug its claws deep into his spine. Suppressing an ugly moan, Alan turned aside, staring out toward the distant lake. He didn’t want to leave Delia, but he needed more codeine and he needed it now. “Listen, I’m sorry but I’ve got to go back to the house,” he told her.

Slowly leaning on his cane and breathing hard, not looking at Delia in the stupid hope that she would not look at him and see his ugly grimaces of pain, Alan made his way through the old apple trees. There were lumpy unsprayed pale-green apples among the branches, and here and there he could see a spray of chrome yellow predicting autumn. Delia, silent now, followed, her gauzy white skirts trailing in the long grass. As he started up the slope of the lawn, he saw Jane break away from a group of people and come to­ward him.

“I thought you’d gone inside,” she said. “Are you all right?”

“All right,” Alan lied, grinding his teeth against the pain. “I was showing Delia the ruin.” In this last word he heard another lie, one of omission—the omission of a single letter, the letter s. Unfortunately, he realized at once, it was a lie that would instantly be exposed.

“Yes, it’s just delightful.” Delia laughed lightly She said no more, but it was clear to Alan that she had heard his lie and recognized it, and that she had deliberately decided not to mention the ruined chapel. He looked at this smiling, innocent-seeming woman with some astonishment. They had only met fifteen minutes ago, and al­ready they were in a conspiracy.

Jane’s own smile faded. “It’s not a joke, you know,” she said, clearly trying to keep her voice pleasant. “It’s a historical reproduc­tion. It took months to build, you have no idea how hard Alan and his students worked.”

“Oh, I can imagine.” Delia laughed again and rearranged her shimmering fishnet shawl.

“Alan’s published a book about ruins and follies, you know.”

“Yes, Ah’ve seen it.” Delia’s Southern accent seemed to deepen, and she smiled even more pleasantly than before.

Jane did not reply Even in the increasing grip of his pain, it was clear to Alan that there was not and probably never would be any meeting of minds between Delia and his wife, who had already complained to him about the difficulty the former’s demands were causing at the Center. An awkward silence began, but it was luckily broken by the arrival of several other guests, all apparently eager to meet Delia, and one who seemed to know her well already.

“Hello there, darling,” this man said, putting a heavy arm around Delia’s creamy bare shoulders. (Did Alan imagine it, or did she flinch slightly?) “How’s it going?”

“Just wonderfully . . . This is my husband, Henry Hull,” she told Alan. “Alan Mackenzie.”

Alan registered the presence of a muscular person in a checked shirt who was several inches shorter than him. “How do you do,” he said resentfully

“Hi,” Henry Hull said, as if identifying some neutral object. He took Alan’s cool, long—fingered hand in his broad sweaty one and gave it a painful shake. “You have the office across the hall from Delia’s at the Center,” he remarked.

“That’s right.” Suddenly the implications of this fact became clear to Alan. He would see Delia again; he would have plenty of chances to see her again. For the first time in several minutes, he smiled. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said, “I’m afraid I have to go back to the house now.”


Lurie is a terrific writer, and the brevity of Truth and Consequences allows her adequate and efficient space to tell us just enough about an academic world she understands well, and to enjoy the deceits in relationships.


Steve Hopkins, January 25, 2006



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