Truth and Consequences
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In her first novel in seven years, long-time professor at Cornell University Alison Lurie returns to her favored setting, the college campus. A true social satire, Truth and Consequences creates a battle of the sexes to examine the complex connection between what a woman wants from a man and vice versa, and what happens when that singular pairing begins to sour.
Jane Mackenzie has always prided herself on being good. "A good girl, a good woman, a good wife," she remembers. But when her husband, Alan, a handsome and charming Corinth University professor and successful expert in architectural history, is crippled by a back injury, her virtue is seriously tested. For the first fifteen months of Alan's illness, the situation is bearable. "But now she was tired of being wonderful, and Alan, she suspected, was tired of being grateful," Jane thinks to herself as she once again attempts to escape to her garden, away from her homeand her husband. Alan has transformed into an overweight, bitter man, racked with pain and despair. Jane is nearly unable to recognize the man she married, whom she once thought of as her knight in shining armor. Fighting devastating feelings of guilt and self-hatred for no longer being that good wife she had always aspired to be, Jane begins to look at her once fulfilling marriage as choked with weeds, much like her own garden, neglected due to the tremendous time and energy spent caring for Alan.
Discouraged and uninterested in doing much else but lie on the sofa or doodle folliesminiature ruins of great works of architecturein his sketchbook, Alan unwittingly falls under the spell of Delia Delaney, the most renowned of the visiting fellows at the university's Matthew Unger Center for the Humanities. A wide-eyed Botticelli vision with a wreath of long, curly red-gold hair, Delia brings to Corinth not only her great reputation as a writer of Southern Gothic folk tales, but a following of swooning, bohemian fans, a failed-poet husband, Henry Hull, and a propensity to take ill seemingly lifted from What Katy Did. As her husband, Henry, slyly observes, Delia's migraines come on "when she's under stress, or when she doesn't get what she wants." However, in Alan's eyes, Delia is nothing short of perfection, or at least everything that Jane is not. While Jane is unsupportive of his sketches, Delia goes so far as to find Alan an agent. While Jane is conventional and familiar, Delia is glamorous and dramatic. As Alan becomes more and more obsessed with Delia, Jane can no longer ignore the affair. Rather than play the socially acceptable role of scorned woman, Jane begins to extract her life from her husband's needs, and begins a tentative affair of her ownwith Delia's husband, Henry.
Alternating points of view so adeptly that each character can appear at once sympathetic and ridiculous, archetypical and poignantly individual, Lurie has created a thoroughly modern comedy that discovers just what Jane Austen would have written were she reborn as David Lodge. Despite Lurie's examination of darker themesegoism, jealousy, adultery, illnessTruth and Consequences not only allows readers to recognize these qualities in themselves but also offers the chance to laugh at such perennial human weaknesses.
"There is no American writer I have read with more consistent pleasure and sympathy over the years," John Fowles has remarked about Lurie. With this surprisingly fierce and funny novel, Lurie has created one of her finest works, destined to join the ranks of her popular university novels, The War Between the Tates and Foreign Affairs.
Alison Lurie is the author of many novels, including The War Between the Tates, The Truth About Lorin Jones (winner of the Prix Femina Étranger), Foreign Affairs (winner of the Pulitzer Prize), and The Last Resort. Her most recent book was Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter. She teaches writing, folklore, and literature at Cornell University and divides her time between Ithaca, New York, and Key West, Florida.
Many of your most beloved novels take place on the college campus, The War Between the Tates probably being the best known. As a professor, it is a place you know best, but what else about that setting attracts you?
A college campus is a relatively small, self-contained community that is also ever-changing as students and staff arrive and leave, so it's an ideal background for a novel.
Joyce Carol Oates has said about you, "One can read Lurie as one might read Jane Austen, with continual delight." This is nothing short of a glowing compliment, but how do you feel about the comparisons to Jane Austen? Is there something about her work that you like to emulate in your own? Do you have a favorite Jane Austen novel?
I am deeply flattered by being compared to Jane Austen, but of course I do not consider myself her equal. I would like to have her wit, her understanding of how society and individual psychology work, and her detached sympathy with all her characters. I love all her novelsMansfield Park perhaps less than the others.
In 1985, you won the Pulitzer Prize for your novel Foreign Affairs. What was your reaction upon hearing the news then, and how has your feeling about winning the prize changedif at allover the course of the last twenty years?
Luck as well as talent plays a part in the Pulitzer Prize, and I feel very lucky to have received it. However, as Philip Roth said to me later, one thing you know after this happens is that the headline on your obituary will read PULITZER WINNER DIES.
Truth and Consequences is your first novel in seven years. Why did you turn away from fiction for a time? What did your work in memoir (Familiar Spirits) and essay (Boys and Girls Forever) provide that fiction did not?
I write fiction only when I have a story that needs to be told. After The Last Resort I did not have a really good idea for a novel, but I wanted to remember my friends James Merrill and David Jackson, so I wrote the memoir Familiar Spirits, and there were things I wanted to say, or had said, about children's books, so I published Boys and Girls Forever.
Alan Mackenzie comments, "Key West is overrun with homeless chickens and feral six toed cats, and drugs, and drunken writers and crazy motorcyclists, and the local government is completely corrupt." As you make your home in Key West part of the year, do you find this to be true of the island? What other views of Key West accord with your experience?
This is Alan Mackenzie's view of the island, not mine. He has never been there, so he is unaware of Key West's many attractions, among which are the free-range chickens and cats.
The character Delia Delaney is particularly vivid. Was the very colorful Delia based on any one person, or was she a composite sketch of writers you've encountered throughout your career? How much backstory do you plan for each character before you begin writing?
One of my mother's best friends when I was growing up was a Southern woman writer who (though she was married all her life to the same man) had some of the characteristics of Delia, including her self-confidence, her original view of the world, and her ability to charm almost every man, woman, or child she met. A character more closely based on her appears in my novel Only Children. I usually make several pages of notes on every major character before I start to write.
You've written eleven books of fiction. Can you describe your writing process for your novels? Has it changed much through the years? How does it differ from how you would approach a memoir, essay, or nonfiction piece?
I have published ten novels and a collection of stories, Women and Ghosts. I usually write for three or four hours a day, but some of this is rewritingthere may be five or six drafts of every novel. The main change in my method is that though I still write the first draft in longhand, I then type it onto the computer, print it out, work on the printout again in longhand, type the changes onto the computer, print it out, etc. etc. I follow the same process with nonfiction.
Your husband, Edward Hower, is also a writer. Do you find it challenging to be married to a fellow author?
It is wonderful to be married to another writer, if he is as sympathetic and supportive as my husband, and also, like him, a good critic.
What are you working on now? Will we have to wait another seven years for your next novel?
I am currently working on a companion to my nonfiction book The Language of Clothes: it will probably be called The Language of Houses. I may never write another novel, but you never knowthis is what I have thought after each one.
- One of the most striking characteristics of the novel Truth and Consequences is how each character's perception of himself and of those around him varies wildly. While Henry Hull sees Jane as beautiful, Alan has in the last few years regarded Jane as plain and dowdy. Alan believes Delia is a goddess, and Jane sees her as a manipulative old woman. Which character is the most magnanimous in his or her opinions of the others? And which character's suspicions of another prove to be ultimately correct?
- Jane remembers that in the nineteenth-century novels of her youth, "Pain . . . could be ennobling and inspiring." Delia imagines that the pain of her migraines is "bringing me something I need" to be an artist. Alan is skeptical of both perspectives, choosing the dictum "It's not fair" to describe his feelings about his back pain. How each character copes with illness, their own or that of others, varies throughout Truth and Consequences. Who do you think has the most appropriate response to the concept of pain? What aspect of each character's personality informs the way they react?
- Truth and Consequences uses the events of September 11, 2001, as a backdrop for much of the action. Each character has a very different take on this tragedy. For example, Jane frets over how Alan's art seems like "a joke about the World Trade Center." How does 9/11 affect each of the characters? Why does everyone react to this tragedy in such a different way? Do you think the use of 9/11 is an effective addition to this story?
- In Truth and Consequences, quite a few animal images are evoked throughout the bookfor example, the brown and red lizard that Alan imagines is living within his spine. What was the author attempting to convey by selecting this particular animal? Why do you think Alan chose to assign an image to his back pain?
- "Delia hasn't really taken in anything that has happened after she left the mountains of West Virginia. Her life there was so intense, so violent, so primitive," comments the critic L. D. Zimmern in Truth and Consequences. While it is never clearly stated just what had happened to Delia during her childhood, there are hints throughout the book. Can you piece together the events of her childhood? How did these experiences inform her very unusual personality?
- Delia believes artists can never be happy. Historically, many of those who work in creative fields tend to be afflicted by mental illness, or commit suicide. Why do you think that is?
- Why does Henry stay with Delia even after he discovers they are not legally married? What ties him to her? Jane also returns to Alan, even after she exposes his affair with Delia. Why do you think she does so?
- Which affair do you consider to be more longstanding, the relationship between Delia and Alan, or Jane and Henry? Who cheated firstphysically and emotionally?
- At the very end of the novel, Alan and Delia meet again. His last words to Delia are, "Who are you, Dilly, what are you? Are you a demon come to tempt me to sin?" If that is the case, Delia is the second demon to visit Alan in the novel, the first being the lizard. Why, if Alan is an atheist, does he so often evoke religious imagery throughout the book? Do you think the nature of faith changes with regard to illness?
- The title Truth and Consequences can be applied to many situations within the novel, the most obvious being Alan's deceitfulness about his relationship with Delia and Jane's subsequent desertion. What other situations within the book reflect that phrase? Why do you think the author chose that title for this work?