- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 4, 2006


By Alison Lurie

Viking, $24.95, 232 pages


Novels set in the groves of academe — a tip of the hat to Mary McCarthy — are not everyone’s cup of tea. For readers who prefer the hard stuff, they are often too mild and polite, and, conversely, for those who like things mild and polite they are often filled with way too much hard stuff.

There’s a big difference between David Lodge’s “Small World” and “I Am Charlotte Simmons” by Tom Wolfe, and not all readers are equally fond of both campuses, which may be why so many novels about college and university life are written as comedies.

In “Truth and Consequences,” Alison Lurie, author of “The War Between the Tates,” “Real People” and nine other novels, manages to make us laugh (though not, as today’s students would put it, LOL) while also creating characters who linger in our mind’s eye beyond the last smile and the final page.

Perhaps her success in T&C; has to do with the fact that her narrator is, of all things, an administrator. No priapic professor or suicidal student in this department, just a capable, no-nonsense director of an academic center, who prides herself on being a good person and (pay attention here, class) on telling the truth, which brings on any number of unintended consequences.

“On a hot midsummer morning, after over sixteen years of marriage, Jane Mackensie saw her husband from fifty feet away and did not recognize him.” Oh, oh, there’s conflict in the very first sentence. But that’s nothing compared to all the other conflicts that are in store for Jane and Alan and the fascinating cast of academic characters Lurie brings onstage before the final curtain.

As testament to the author’s skill, while all of the characters are recognizable, almost all of them manage to come across as more than just types.

What’s made Alan Mackensie momentarily unrecognizable to his own wife is the result of his having a bad back. But this is no ordinary, run-of-the-mill bad back; this is a monster of a bad back.

“Some days were better, Alan Mackensie thought as he lay on the sofa. Some days were worse. All were bad. None were good. Always the pain was there. Alan imagined it as a lizard about ten inches long … inside his back, gripping his spine with its dry legs and claws, moving its jaws to bite and flicking its forked tongue.”

When Alan was well, he and Jane had been on a relatively even keel: he was a highly-respected architectural historian and she the administrative secretary of the Humanities Council, but the toll taken on his normal good humor by his debilitating problem eventually tips the balance, and the man who had once been Jane’s prince, and later her king, has become “a kind of shabby, whining beggar.”

That’s the truth Jane has to face; the consequences will be the result of how well they both deal with it.

And then the plot thickens. Enter Delia Delaney, as beautiful and egotistic as Jane is plain and self-effacing. Enter also handsome Henry Hull, free lance editor and failed poet who happens to be married to the goddess Delia.

He’s as much in the shadow of his spouse as Jane would be in that of hers except that she is too competent, too “good,” to settle for such a role. Like Alan, who has been honored by his peers, Delia is one of five distinguished fellows who are to spend an academic year on campus, not teaching but doing their work and giving the occasional lecture.

She is, as the author tells us, “… the famous writer Delia Delaney, the author of Womenfaith (spiritual essays), Dreamworks (poetry), and Moon Tales (modern fairy stories).” Delia is everything that Jane is not, which is no compliment to Delia, but nonetheless Alan falls hard, bad back and all.

Then Henry Hull falls hard for Jane, but the long-suffering Jane, who is quite tempted, struggles to be good. Whew, right there you’ve got more than enough conflict for several novels. How Alison Lurie works it all out is the main pleasure of the book.

What made me like this book so much is that as skillfully as the author wields her scalpel, she’s never mean about it. She lets her characters — especially Alan and Delia — climb right up on their respective petards and do their own hoisting.

In addition, Lurie takes us off campus as well as out of the classroom (I don’t think there’s a single student with a speaking part) which broadens the range and possibilities of the humor, a careful blend of two or three parts satire to every one of irony.

As a result, you can read this book without having to remind yourself: This book is supposed to be funny. What this book is supposed to be is enjoyable, and that it is, in spades.

Here’s an example of a typically understated passage. Jane is speaking to a fellow administrator: “‘I usually like all the fellows. But there’s something about Delia — I don’t know how to describe it — It’s not as if she’s pretending to be someone she isn’t, like that professor who came to the Linguistics conference last year, who said he’d graduated from Oxford and had published two books that didn’t exist. With Delia, it’s like she’s pretending all the time to be who she is.’ Jane sighed.”

There are no big yucks here, and nothing that comes close to an X-rating, just good clean meaningful adult fun produced by a mature writer of subtle skill, the kind of intelligent fun that one finds, if one is fortunate, in real life — and sometimes even on a college campus.

John Greenya is a Washington writer and author of “Silent Justice: The Clarence Thomas Story.”

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