The Testing of Luther Albright

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9780007196722: The Testing of Luther Albright

Luther Albright is a devoted father and a designer of dams, a self-controlled man who believes he can engineer happiness for his family by sheltering them from his own emotions.

But when an earthquake shakes his Sacramento home, the world Luther has constructed with such care begins to tilt: his son's behavior becomes increasingly bizarre and threatening, his loving wife seems to grow distant, the house he built with his own hands shows its first signs of decay, and a dam of his design comes under investigation for structural flaws exposed by the tremors. Nightmarish connections begin to whisper at Luther from the most innocent of places as debut novelist MacKenzie Bezos tightens her net of psychological suspense around the reader with bravura skill. This is a harrowing portrait of an ordinary man who finds himself tested and strives not to be found wanting.

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Review:

MacKenzie Bezos's The Testing of Luther Albright, a debut novel that heralds the beginning of what bodes to be a substantial writing career, starts with this sentence: "The year I lost my wife and son, my son performed nine separate tests of my character." We don't know what "lost" means yet, but as the story unfolds, we learn that "lost" is certainly the most appropriate word.

The novel is rich with symbolism: Luther's cherished, hand-built home has a problem--and he can't find it. He is an engineer who builds dams and the structure of one of his dams is under review following an earthquake. At every turn, Luther is under siege, being tested. There are many places in the narrative where Luther might have done or said something that would have kept his wife Liz and his son Elliot close to him. Instead, a slow drift away from each other begins and then accelerates until a chasm is created.

The tests that Elliot inflicts on his father take many forms: a shaved head, sabotage of his father's meticulous home-plumbing, a downright lie about a job, a friendship with a man his father despises. All these tests are given in the hope of eliciting a valid response from Luther. Whether it is anger, shame, disappointment, embarrassment, chagrin--Elliot wants his repressed father to show it to him, to have a reaction, and Luther cannot or will not do it. The story is reminiscent in some ways of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, at least in those parts where Franzen chronicles so faithfully peoples' ability to withhold from one another. What Luther withholds is emotional honesty; indeed, real feeling of any stripe.

Elliot is writing a research paper on his grandfather and, since he has never met him, must ask Luther many questions. Luther is not forthcoming, gives monosylllabic answers and never helps Elliot in any meaningful way. Bezos (wife of Amazon.com founder Jeff) uses this device to allow Luther to reminisce privately about his father, who was emotionally unavailable and manipulative. He spent many nights sitting alone in a movie theatre and then reported to his wife that he was having an affair. She says, "I forgive you," believing that unconditional love is what she must give. Of course, his father is bitterly disappointed by this response. Luther has followed him and knows that the story isn't true. Thus is internalized a way of behaving that kills all chance for real intimacy. Luther learns his lesson well.

A story about a controlling person unable to bend to the needs of his wife and son, and yet honestly loving them inordinately, might be merely a dry recitation if it weren't for the beauty of Bezos's writing and for her ability to show us how trapped Luther is by his background and nature. Bezos writes with complete control of her material. She makes the reader eager to know what's next. --Valerie Ryan

From the Inside Flap:

"MacKenzie Bezos has produced a rarity: a sophisticated novel that breaks and swells the heart.  A sure-footed excavation into the nuances of everyday terror--the kind that turns devotion into despair, trust into treachery, love into loss. Its pull is irresistible." —Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and author of Song of Solomon

Luther Albright is a builder of dams, a man whose greatest pride is running his hand over the true planes of the house he built to shelter his beloved family. An earthquake that shakes his Sacramento home begins to reveal fault lines in his life: his teenage son’s behavior becomes increasingly strange, his devoted wife more distant, and nightmarish meanings begin to shout at Luther from the most innocent of places. This is a harrowing portrait of an ordinary man who finds himself tested and strives not to be found wanting.

"MacKenzie Bezos puts her hero under the microscope, tracing his every suspicion, his feelings of loss, and his tenderness for his son. A masterful debut." —Jane Hamilton, the prize-winning author of The Book of Ruth and Disobedience

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