After a back injury Alan, once a youthful, charming professor of architectural history, becomes a moaning overweight invalid dependent on his wife Jane. She tries hard to take care of him, but feels guilty when she resents his demands. "Who is this man?" she thinks when one day he returns from university earlier than expected. Her prince has turned to aged and cranky king, and she has lost her goodness.
Alan can't abide her guilt and pity. He turns to Delia Delaney, celebrity writer and visiting fellow, for artistic and sexual sustenance. With Delia's encouragement, he begins to paint the empty corners of his life: "the kitchen with dishes in the rack and a window open over the sink", "a bathroom with it crumbled hanging towels", a section of the wall from his childhood bedroom. Jane sees only the absence of herself in his scenes. After she discovers his affair, she realises that she loves Delia's husband, the strong, practical Henry who knows the labours of taking care of a temperamental artist.
Lurie has written a comic morality tale with characters who mostly get what they deserve. She is always good at revealing the frailties and dreams of her central characters, so that however weak and contemptible their actions, they always engage us. Alan and Jane emerge more complex and sympathetic than first impressions suggest: he loses some of his arrogance as he muddles his way through doubts and an impossible affair to find his vocation, while she, the efficient wife and administrator, learns the joys of disorderly love.
Lurie is also good in chronicling Alan's pain, the way it intrudes on every aspect of his life, and the loneliness of illness. She's less successful exploring the connection between illness and art. Delia, who suffers migraines and paranoia, believes that "artists always have a tragic wound to go with their invincible bow". Alan's injury may have indirectly led him to drawing, but it does not define him as an artist; his real folly is to take her nonsense seriously.
Flamboyant Delia remains his unreliable muse and the book's weakest character, neither comic enough to amuse nor credible enough to believe in. Though she makes fun of the pretensions of Alan and Delia and the myth of the sensitive creative person, Lurie uses their lives to examine what distinguishes artists from ordinary folk. They seem to live in a more fragmented world than that of Jane and Henry, down-to-earth people willing to commit themselves to each other.
Yet the real difference is in the way Alan sees. His metamorphosis from historian to artist is the most intriguing part of the book. In his paintings he begins to transform the ordinary to the iconic, to see a pattern in the randomness of everyday existence. Having lost both wife and lover, he finds in art the harmony missing from his life.
Wendy Brandmark's novel 'The Angry Gods' is published by Dewi LewisReuse content