A once-happy marriage jumps the tracks when a charismatic writer accepts a fellowship at the small college in upstate New York where both husband and wife work.
Jane and Alan Mackenzie are a model couple. He is a 51-year-old professor of architecture and expert on Victorian-era follies (the faux ruins of stone towers and hermitages Britain’s landed gentry built to enhance their estates); she, 11 years younger, is a quietly in-charge college bureaucrat who runs a program for visiting scholars. Told in alternating chapters from the perspective of husband and wife, the novel charts the disintegration of their marriage, which initially begins to fray when a minor injury on a volleyball court—Alan admits he was showing off for the younger faculty—segues into chronic back pain. Their home life becomes a hellish stand-off between need and resentment. While Jane is stepping and fetching for her husband in her off hours—prescriptions for pain killers, packs of ice, heating pads, more pillows—her day job as administrator is transformed by the arrival of Delia Delaney, renowned writer and unrepentant id-on-wheels. Only Delia’s long-suffering husband Henry knows how demanding she can be: She needs a sofa for her office. Less light. Fewer visitors. A deadbolt on her door. Silence! Jane and Henry find they are on common ground as helpmates—and commiserate with one another, complicating Jane’s self-image as a “good” person. Alan and Delia also discern they have much in common. Delia, who suffers from migraines, helps Alan own his pain, find his inner artist and resurrect his sexuality. Pulitzer Prize–winner Lurie (The Last Resort, 1998, etc.) is a keen observer of consciences in conflict. There are passages here (though too few) that remind the reader of her considerable artistic authority. But the characters rarely act outside selfish motives, and in the end, who cares who ends up with whom? They all deserve each other.
A tepid affair by an author capable of incandescence.