Truth About Lorin Jones (Abacus Books) Paperback – 1 May 1989
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This is another novel by the author of "Foreign Affairs".
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There is so much to say about this book-its brilliant dissection of the art world, for example. Parts are very funny-such as the protagonist's attempts to become a lesbian.
Oddly what sticks in my mind most is Polly's visit to interview Lorin's old husband. After a disagreeable evening he suddenly makes Polly a gift of a pastoral landscape by Lorin. The motive behind the gift emerges when he says " I want it put where I know I will never have to see it again, I don't want to come across it suddenly at an exhibition, I don't want to be reminded". In a flash of intuition, it comes to Polly that the picture is of a place he and Lorin made love..
This is when the book really came alive for me. One could imagine the same feeling about a box of old love letters, and why one might desperately wish to discard them.
There is also a fantastic portrait of her irresponsible absent father, who has a habit of swooping down without warning to take her out, pnly to disappear again for months or years, until she puts her foot down and refuses to respond to his bonkers advances and phony affection.
As the work progresses, however, and as Polly interviews various people who knew Lorin personally, her views begin to alter. (Her surname has obvious symbolic significance). Another view of Lorin emerges, that of a selfish, eccentric, neurotic genius who behaved badly to both the men and the women in her life. Everyone she speaks to has their own ideas about Lorin, and these conflicting ideas are difficult to reconcile, both with one another and with Polly's original vision. Garrett Jones, for example, may have many faults both as a man and as a husband, but Polly is left in no doubt that he believed sincerely in his wife's talent and used his considerable influence in the art world to promote her work. When Polly eventually meets Cameron, initially without knowing who he is, she realises that he is very different from the picture she had initially formed of him.
Polly's initial view of Lorin as a misunderstood, maltreated feminist heroine is very much conditioned by her own personal circumstances. Polly, who at one time had ambitions to be a painter herself, identifies strongly with Lorin because they have much in common. Both are from New York. Both are the daughters of Jewish fathers and Gentile mothers. They are physically similar, being petite with dark, curly hair. Both have changed their first names (Polly's real name is Paula). Like Lorin, Polly is divorced, and blames her husband (although Lurie suggests that Polly was as much to blame herself). Since the divorce, the strongest influence on Polly's life has been her close friend (and, briefly, lesbian lover) Jeanne, a radical feminist.
There has been much discussion as to whether or not the book is a feminist work, with one reviewer attacking the writer for caricaturing feminism and another stating that she has been criticised as a rabid feminist. Certainly, as with most of Alison Lurie's novels, there is a strong vein of satirical humour in "The Truth about Lorin Jones", and much of this is directed at Jeanne and her circle. Jeanne is portrayed as hypocritical, selfish and manipulative, shamelessly sponging off Polly and using her in much the same way as feminists criticise men for using women. That, however, does not necessarily mean that Lurie is attacking feminism per se. (Some of her other novels, such as "The Nowhere City" and "The Last Resort", have a much more pro-feminist tone). It seems to me that her criticism is directed at a type of radical lesbian separatism, which she sees as having nothing to offer to heterosexual or bisexual women. Several of the male characters are also satirised, especially Garrett Jones, a vain, self-important ageing Lothario (he makes an unsuccessful attempt to seduce Polly), and the camp, bitchy and gossipy art dealer Jacky Herbert.
The book also displays other common characteristics of Lurie's writing. There is always a strong sense of place, whether the action takes place in New York, on a chilly, autumnal Cape Cod (where Polly goes to meet Garrett Jones) or amid the tropical lushness of Key West (where Lorin died and where Cameron still lives). Like Jane Austen, to whom she has sometimes been compared, Lurie has a great ability to suggest a person's character through the use of a telling phrase of seemingly minor detail.
As in other works, Lurie makes use of the device of recurring characters. The child Lorin Jones appears (as Lolly Zimmern) in "Only Children". Lolly's childhood friend from that work, Mary Ann Hubbard, appears here under her married name of Mary Ann Fenn. Lorin's half-brother, the literary critic Leonard Zimmern, appears in several other Lurie novels. In the course of her researches, Polly interviews several characters who first appeared in "Real People", not only Leonard but also Kenneth Foster (Lorin's teacher), Janet Belle Smith (a college friend) and Sally Sachs (fellow artist). Polly and Garrett reappear in Lurie's next novel, "The Last Resort", as does Lee, the owner of the boarding-house where Polly stays in Key West.
What is truth? asked Pontius Pilate. The question was answered by Oscar Wilde, who said that truth is rarely pure and never simple, and that is the basic theme of this book. Each of Polly's interviewees gives her a different perspective on Lorin's character, yet none of them are deliberately telling lies. All tell her what they honestly believe to be the truth. Polly finds that she cannot say "The truth is X" or "The truth is Y" or even "The truth lies somewhere between those two extremes". When we are dealing with something as subjective and changeable as a person's character, there is no such thing as objective truth. One reviewer criticises Alison Lurie for raising but failing to answer interesting questions about art and truth. Perhaps because there are no answers to the questions she raises. That does not, however, mean that she should not ask the questions.