In Truth and Consequences, Alison Lurie’s delightful new novel, middle age is a deep, dark forest full of howling wolves, wicked spells, ogres and witches, castles and enchanted gardens. There are princes and princesses, too, rescuing and being rescued, and it all takes place right in the middle of Corinth, Lurie’s fictional upstate New York university town that readers will remember fondly from earlier novels like The War Between the Tates and Foreign Affairs. Lurie is a scholar of fairy tales and children’s literature. As a novelist, she is a master of the humor and pathos of the fictions her characters weave around their own selfish actions. In this, her tenth novel, Lurie’s deep understanding of the literature of childhood fantasy joins hands with her sharp appreciation of the self-deception of adult reality. Casting the crisp irony and humor of her academic novels in the dappled metaphorical light of an enchanted wood, Lurie has had thewit to recognize that middle age is just as dark and bizarre as any of the Grimms’ fantastic tales.
The trolls and wicked witches of the novel are, in fact, just the ordinary citizens of a university town, but the fairy-tale references are everywhere, beginning with the very first glimpse Lurie gives us of her hero and heroine. Alan and Jane Mackenzie had been a happily married successful Corinth couple. He was tall and handsome, a professor of architectural history with an endowed chair and a growing reputation. She, small, tidy, and competent, was a Corinth local who not only married well but worked her way through the university system to become the administrative director of Corinth’s prestigious Matthew Unger Center for the Humanities. But, no surprise to Lurie’s readers, there is trouble in academic paradise.
“On a hot midsummer morning,” the novel begins, “after over sixteen years of marriage, Jane Mackenzie saw her husband fifty feet away and did not recognize him.” Alan Mackenzie was, just a year ago, an athletic, youthful man, not yet fifty. Now, transformed, he walks slowly down the driveway, “an aging man with slumped shoulders, a sunken chest, and a protruding belly, leaning on a cane.” Alan, this strange troll shuffling along the driveway, suffers from what Lurie, with her sly insight, recognizes as the modern-day, middle-aged version of a very evil spell, indeed: chronic back pain.
Like his fairy-tale predecessors, Alan has been turned into a frog. Jane
still couldn’t quite believe that the person inside the shirt was her husband…. Awkwardly, she untied and removed the oxfords she had put on and tied earlier that morning. It was like taking care of a giant toddler, she thought—but this child’s bare feet were not soft and smooth and lovable, but hard and knobby, with horny toenails.
This helpless gnome was once Jane’s prince. “Nobody would have guessed that twenty years ago, long after she knew the phrase to be foolish, she had clung to the belief that one …