Originally created 12/25/05

'Smart' novel visits life in academia



"Truth and Consequences." By Alison Lurie. Viking. 232 Pages. $24.95.

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Alan Mackenzie has a bad back, and his wife, Jane, is growing tired of being his nursemaid and coming in second to his pain.

The couple's idyllic life in a college town in upstate New York is coming to an end in Alison Lurie's latest novel, "Truth and Consequences."

Their lives become even more confusing when famous poet Delia Delaney and her husband, Henry, move to town.

Lurie, who teaches at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., playfully pokes fun at college life. She also takes a swipe at how colleges pander to the celebrity writer. In the hands of a lesser novelist, Delia might be a cliche. Luckily, Lurie created this character with talons beneath her romantic flowing attire.

Lurie has a talent for weaving fascinating information about obscure topics into her books. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Foreign Affairs," she deftly sprinkled in facts about the origins of children's playground rhymes, the protagonist's research area.

In this novel, Alan, an architectural scholar, creates "follies," faux ruins such as churches and classical buildings, in his yard.

Alan "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."

Too perfect.

The long-suffering Jane juggles the egos of not only Alan and Delia, but a handful of fellows of the Matthew Unger Center for the Humanities, housed in a crumbling mansion-turned-office for Corinth College, a familiar locale in other Lurie books.

Jane's already tense life is compounded by Henry, who is charged with tending to Delia and nursing her through her many migraines.

Jane and Henry quickly form a bond, as do Delia and Alan. While the relationship between Jane and Henry seems to develop in a more traditional adulterous way, Delia and Alan's is more like that of a parasite and host - although it's hard to determine who is which.

Throughout the book, Alan dwells on a lizard he encountered while photographing churches in Santa Fe, N.M. He considers the reptile an omen and an adversary.

The characters are what make this book flow. Lurie is whip-smart and very funny.