The Testing of Luther Albright [NOOK Book]


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...

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The Testing of Luther Albright

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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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Editorial Reviews

Kate Bolick
In MacKenzie Bezos' quietly absorbing first novel, The Testing of Luther Albright, the jumble of pipes and tubing snaking through her protagonist's modest two-story house is his very soul writ large. As an emotionally repressed young man, Luther built it and laid the plumbing with his own hands. Twenty-three years later, he's an emotionally repressed husband and father who communes more readily with a flashlight and a propane torch than with his wife and son. To him, a clogged drain is a welcome reprieve from conversation.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Luther Albright has it all: a top civil engineering position with the Sacramento department of water services; a lovely home he designed and built himself; a beautiful, loving wife; and a teenage son who shares his passion for household construction and repair. But when an earthquake rattles his house's foundation, faults in Luther's design expose deeper cracks in the life he's built with his family. Bezos's impressive, quietly powerful debut, narrated 20 years later by a reflective and regretful Luther, charts a year in stages, revolving around a series of "tests" performed on Luther by his son, Elliot. Ranging from shaving his head to reckless horseplay on the roof, Elliot's tests never stray far beyond the limits of typical teenage rebellion. But Luther, crippled by his inability to communicate with his maturing son, chooses inaction and evasion in the face of them. Bezos scrutinizes her protagonist's every thought, fear and action as he unwittingly distances himself from his beloved wife and son, uncovering a heartbreaking family dissolution steeped not in melodrama but in the irrevocable damage done when one member closes himself off from the rest. Bezos (wife of founder Jeff) captures the extraordinary in the ordinary, revealing a subtle imagination and a startling talent for naturalism. Agent, Amanda Urban. (Aug.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
A civil engineer by trade and an obsessive by nature, Luther Albright has constructed a life in which all things can be measured, tested, and evaluated. However, within Luther's family, what is being tested is his own patience, his mettle, and, oddly, the strength of his love. In a pattern set by Luther's parents, the relationship between Luther and his son, Elliot, centers on a power struggle: the endless push/pull of the emotive vs. the dispassionate. Elliot tests his father to provoke a reaction. Sound familiar? The angst of this first novel may well strike a resounding chord with anyone who has been the parent of an adolescent, i.e., anyone whose feet have been held to the fire to see how long it takes for him or her to flinch. Luther defines the emotional landscape in terms of his own failure, but his eventually letting go of his tight rein of control may not be such a failure after all. Within the emotional minutiae, Bezos drops in some breathtakingly truthful observations. Recommended for all popular fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/05.]-Susanne Wells, P.L. of Cincinnati & Hamilton Cty., OH Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A low-key but affecting portrait of a family whose admirable head has one fatal flaw. Luther Albright is a responsible man. That shows in his work as a highly respected civil engineer in Sacramento; it shows in the shipshape house he built from scratch in the Sacramento suburbs; and it shows in his love for his close-knit family. Yet his story begins: "The year I lost my wife and son . . ." Lost: the ominous, ambiguous word hangs over the seemingly inconsequential episodes to come. The immediate cause of the unraveling is 15-year-old Elliot's need to test limits. At school, he's been given a research assignment on an ancestor, and he picks Luther's father, whom he never knew. This causes acute anxiety for Luther, who has never properly confronted his feelings about his father's crude provocations of his sweetly long-suffering mother. The missteps of one generation are about to be repeated. Elliot asks searching questions about his grandfather; Luther stonewalls; Elliot ups the ante. He shaves his head (a radical move in 1983) and displays a girl's panties in his bathroom. Luther conceals his alarm, reacting positively or not at all, inviting further trouble, while failing to share his anxieties with his wife, Liz, thus alienating her as well. "His love meant too much to both of us," says Luther. Bezos's finely calibrated first novel seethes with ironies, the cruelest being that the sensitive, upright Luther destroys his family as effectively as his blundering father had done before him. "My crimes of emotion," Luther calls them. What he means is his failure to achieve a depth of intimacy with his needy son or insecure wife. One blast of honest rage at his son's later antics might have seteverything right in a way that his flat "I forgive you" can't. There are no melodramatic excesses here, just the painful realization that a love that evades past injuries and present affronts isn't quite enough. A self-assured, distinguished debut.
The Sunday Oregonian
“A memorable debut.”
“Bezos refreshingly resists tying the story up neatly at the end. Quietly heartbreaking...just as real life often is.”
“A nuanced, emotionally charged first novel.”
Entertainment Weekly
“Outstanding. . . . Bezos lays bare the inner life of the repressed American Everyman in [an] exquisite, excruciating portrait.”
Jane Hamilton
“In her chilling first novel Bezos puts her hero under the microscope. . . . A masterful debut.”
Toni Morrison
“Bezos has produced a rarity: a sophisticated novel that breaks and swells the heart….sure-footed…compelling….irresistible.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061758096
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/13/2009
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 272
  • File size: 494 KB

Meet the Author

MacKenzie Bezos lives in Seattle, Washington. This is her first novel.

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Read an Excerpt

The Testing of Luther Albright

A Novel
By MacKenzie Bezos

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 MacKenzie Bezos
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060751428

Chapter One

The Research Topic

The year I lost my wife and son, my son performed nine separate tests of my character. One night during Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, the sofa tipped beneath us, and this is how it began.

"Whoa," he said.

His palms were flat on the sofa cushions. Liz was sitting cross-legged on the floor, and before I could think to stand, she had taken him by the wrist and led him to the shelter of the door frame. She reached to place a hand on his shoulder, and although he was fifteen, this was all it took to get him to follow her into a crouch. In a second, I had joined them there, and as I kneeled, I had to grasp the door casing for balance. Now I noted objects in the room by weight; our distance from windows. I became aware of sounds -- a quick pop that could have been wood or glass; three dull thuds from different corners of the house -- all of it muffled by the persistent rattling of our things: of flatware in drawers and knickknacks on shelves and pills in their bottles.

When the room stopped shaking, we uncovered our heads, and Liz's eyes, which normally ignored the television, turned immediately to it. Jim Fowler was rappelling down a cliff face toward anest on a narrow ledge.

Elliot stood.

"We should wait here a minute," Liz said.

He crouched again. "It didn't feel very big."

"All the same . . ."

When the condor saw Jim Fowler, it spread its wings, a span the length of a man. Jim wrapped his arms around it from behind, folding them in. His boots dangled in the air. He tagged the condor's ankle, and then opened his arms wide to release it, a burst of feather against the blue sky. As he was hoisted away by the helicopter, the head and shoulders of a local newscaster replaced him.

"We interrupt your regular programming with a special report. An earthquake was just felt in the greater Sacramento area." Her eyes flitted offscreen and back. "We do not yet have any data on the magnitude or the epicenter of the disturbance, but, here in our studio, objects dropped from high shelves." She touched her ear and paused. "The sensation was reportedly felt as far away as Redding, as this caller describes. . . ." From an invisible speaker in the studio came the voice of a Citrus Heights woman explaining that she had been talking to her sister in Redding on the telephone when it happened; her sister had been carrying a mug of hot coffee at the time, and at the exact same moment that the caller heard the tinkling of wind chimes on her own porch, her sister screamed because her coffee had soaked the front of her blouse.

Liz stood and crossed the living room. She had a beauty so striking even I could not recall it fully from morning until nightfall. She was over forty by then, and still people spent the first moments of any encounter with her as they would in a hospital room or a cathedral, their eyes locked first on one feature and then another, trying to decode their composite power. She bent at the waist and picked up a set of proof Kennedy half-dollars that had fallen from the shelf and fingered a crack in the clear plastic case. She and I had met twenty-two years earlier at the Wells Fargo Bank on J Street; she monitored access to the safe-deposit boxes, where I appeared weekly to deposit coins of dubious value. She had thought me an inheritor or a man in the midst of a legal battle until one day she stepped into the vault while I was pulling a small tin of wheat pennies from my coat pocket.

Now she set the cracked case back on the shelf and looked at us, two men she had left in the safety of a door frame. "Come on," she said. "Let's go make sure nothing else is broken."

Elliot led the way. He had grown so much in the last month that from behind he was like a stranger: a thicker trunk, and also a change, from loping to shambling, in his gait. We followed him into the kitchen, and we all three surveyed the room with a sensitivity to disorder we had not felt when we cleared the dinner dishes an hour before. Elliot stooped to pick up a ballpoint pen that may well have been dropped that afternoon. Liz righted things on the counter: a cookbook, an orange that had strayed from an overfull basket of fruit. We had heard no noise that could have come from the direction of the kitchen except that pop, and now I opened cupboards trying to find it. The dishes sat stacked behind smooth oak doors I had purchased twenty-two years ago and waxed with a T-shirt. Little felt pads I had glued to their inner corners let them close without sound.

When Elliot's patience with the normalcy of things ran out, he passed back into the hallway, and again we followed. In the hall above us was a small antique table that I had bought for Liz last fall when Elliot began high school. On it, she kept a potted jade plant, a framed photograph of the three of us in the shadow of Mount Rushmore, and a souvenir core of bedrock, which had rolled from the table to the carpeted floor. We found the other thuds without trouble: a thick book on gardening Liz kept on her small nightstand, and a five-pound hand weight she had set on an ottoman in our walk-in closet. This left only the pop.

When I built the house, I'd left the attic unfinished, and over the summer, Elliot and I had made a project of its completion.


Excerpted from The Testing of Luther Albright by MacKenzie Bezos Copyright © 2006 by MacKenzie Bezos. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 The Research Topic 1
2 The Razor 15
3 The Drink 55
4 The Roof 95
5 The Book 131
6 The Lie 163
7 The Stand-Up 187
8 The Gun 225
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Reading Group Guide


Luther Albright, a civil engineer and designer of large-scale dams, lives contentedly in a Sacramento suburb with his devoted wife, and responsible, bright son. Luther's contentment calmly defies his own turbulent upbringing, sheltered within the frame of a house Luther built by himself.

After an earthquake rattles the greater Sacramento region, Luther discovers a small crack in the foundation of his home. Shortly thereafter, his carefully installed copper plumbing begins to display an erratic range of problems, escalating from clogged drains to emissions of sewer gas. His son, showing the first flush of puberty, appears to provoke and threaten him at every turn, and his beloved wife grows increasingly distant. Then a newspaper reporter begins to hound him as one of his dams comes under investigation for possible structural flaws exposed by the tremors, and a boorish colleague insinuates himself into Luther's life at work, and his home.

Suddenly Luther finds himself desperately trying to erase the suspicious thoughts that float through his mind, to ignore the ominous overtones that shadow everyday encounters, and to pretend that the loss of all he holds most dear might not be just around the corner. The Testing of Luther Albright presents a finely wrought psychological portrait of a haunted man precariously clinging to his beliefs as he faces the one examiner he both loves and fears the most.

Questions for Discussion

  1. The novel opens with the sentence, "The year I lost my wife and son, my son performed nine separate tests of my character." How did this beginning influence your perception of subsequent events? Are the chapter titles related to the tests administered by Luther's son, Elliot?

  2. In the attic, when Luther yells at Elliot for being careless with a blowtorch, he sees this as a "lapse," a "reason to doubt my devotion." How do you think Elliot saw that moment? How does Luther's misunderstanding set the stage for events to come?

  3. Luther's entire belief system appears predicated on the notion that "airing one's baser feelings is a very slippery slope" and strives to become the antithesis of his father, a "man of fire and impulse." Has he succeeded?

  4. When Luther's father says, "I'm the one that loves you," what does he reveal about what love looks like to him? What did his mother mean when she said, "some people need to see your love more than you need to see theirs?"

  5. Since Luther's mother's model of love is wildly different from her husband's, how badly has she misunderstood the situation, misinterpreted what her husband wants to see? How has Luther applied her self-effacing words to his own family? What enormous misunderstanding results from this?

  6. Consider the moments when Luther lost his job, and when Elliot eventually confesses. How do they parallel incidents in his parents' lives?

  7. When faced with a confession both Luther and his mother immediately say, "I forgive you." In each case, was forgiveness just a quick way out? Did the transgressor even want forgiveness?

  8. In believing that his father's behavior was "self-indulgent" and "selfish," what has Luther forced himself to become? What do you think is at the crux of Luther's relationship with his father?

  9. After a black-tie fund-raiser hosted by her sister Trish, Liz confesses to feeling envious of her sister. How does Luther mistake her meaning? In what other instances does he hear only words without understanding the intent behind them?

  10. What element in Luther's character intrigued Liz when they met, and how does this same quality eventually push her away?

  11. What conflicts precipitate Luther's impulsive purchases of a slide-projector for his wife, a hot tub for the family, and a car for his son? How did these conflicts create untenable situations for Luther?

  12. When Elliot picks On Golden Pond, "a movie about a boy hungry for connection with a father," Luther notes "the clumsy bluntness of the message." Later that year, as they watched The Love Boat on TV, Elliot remarks, "People are so fake ... they always pretend the opposite of what they're really feeling" while carefully watching his father's reaction. To Elliot, what is missing in his father's love from him? Why does he have to resort to subterfuge to elicit that component?

  13. Since the reader can only access the novel through the perspective of its inhibited protagonist, how does the author use metaphors to reveal emotional undercurrents and foreshadow events?

  14. What could Luther's favorite lines from a plumbing manual: "behind the walls of a house ... pipes do not always run straight" also allude to? Does the investigation into structural flaws in Luther's dam parallel another, more clandestine, investigation? How else does the author hint at issues beyond Luther's perception?

  15. Luther peppers his narrative with statements like, "I have thought many times how things might have turned out differently" and "I wish I'd been capable of insights like this back then." How would you describe the tone of Luther's retrospection throughout The Testing of Luther Albright?

  16. According to Joyce, her father said, "it took me fifty years to figure out that nylon wasn't important." What has Luther figured out when, at the end of the novel, he describes his expression in a photo by saying, "I used to think of it as a father's joy, but just recently it has begun to strike me as the lonelier joy of a magician?"

  17. What do you think about the irony at the heart of this novel, that the very character traits Luther tried to develop are the ones that pushed his family away?

About the author

MacKenzie Bezos was born and raised in Northern California and studied creative writing at Princeton University. She lives in Seattle. This is her first novel.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2013

    Endlessly wordy.

    Ridiculously verbose. By the way, how (exactly) would one hide a business desk nameplate in a butter dish? Dull, pointless, a waste of money, and more importantly, my time.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 17, 2006

    Tone deaf

    Writing a novel from the point of view of a member of the opposite sex is always a challenge and very impressive when done well. When done poorly, as in this novel, it is like listening to a musician whose instrument is out of tune. This novel is so out of tune that it is almost painful to read. Beyond that fatal flaw is the simple fact that the book is deadly boring. Nothing of consequence happens to these lifeless and uninteresting characters.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 12, 2006

    The Inside and the Outside

    This is a wonderfully crafted novel in which everything that happens in the outside world reflects demons inside the character of Luther Albright. Suspicions about the safety of a dam he built or the problems with the plumbing in his own home--these are perfect externalizations of his own inner anxieties concerning his adequacy as a father. Tension builds slowly and realistically until the inner pressures rise to the surface of Albright's life like cracks in the plaster--or a dam. A really first-rate novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2006

    heartrending depiction of Father's struggle to be intimate

    wonderful that this female author paints so feelingly of effort to stay close to his son and wife - thinking he is sparing their feelings by never being negative.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 2, 2005

    A book about real people........

    An earthquake shakes the Sacramento home of Luther Albright just as unfolding events shake the very fabric of his life. His wife and son exhibit increasingly unusual behavior. And Luther, a civil engineer, and a very introspective man, internalizes his growing feelings of dread¿¿¿¿. This is a powerful portrait of a man doomed to repeat the mistakes of his past and destroy his family in the process. It¿s a wonderful first novel, a book about real people, flawed people, people I could relate to. I think it would inspire great discussions in a reading group. I¿ll be sure to look for future books from MacKenzie Bezos.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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