Rosalie Morales Kearns
Review of The House at Belle Fontaine by Lily Tuck
New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013. 160pgs. $23.00. hardcover.
There's an enjoyably subtle irony in the title of Lily Tuck's latest story collection, The House at Belle Fontaine. While the title might connote a sense of home, the house in question is only a temporary rental for the protagonist, Ella. She and the other women in these stories are travelers, expatriates, exiles. They're in transit, sometimes in hiding. They were never quite at home in their original homes anyway.
One of the most memorable of these fugitive women appears (appropriately enough) only fleetingly, in the story "Ice." When the main character, Maud, and her husband take a cruise to Antarctica, they learn that if passengers want to go ashore—to Livingston Island, for example, to walk among the penguins—they have to wear a red parka. The reason: "red was easy to see and made it easier for the crew to tell whether any passenger was left behind on shore." Had that ever happened, Maud wants to know. "Yes, once. A woman had tried to hide." Maud never finds out what that woman was doing out there, what she was fleeing, whether she was found. We keep picturing her as we read the other stories, a woman in white, perhaps, or gray, camouflaged against the vast snow-swept expanses of the coldest place on earth.
The ten stories are set in a variety of countries (France, Germany, Thailand, Peru, the United States) and eras (pre-World War I, the 1960s and 1970s, the contemporary period). The characters, mostly American, range in age as well, including a five-year-old girl, women with young children, and women in middle and old age. Without being flamboyant or eccentric, the characters are nevertheless determined to escape the strictures imposed on them because of their gender and class, the expectation that they should be content with placid, ambitionless domesticity. In "Sure and Gentle Words," a character is tempted to tell her husband about an earlier affair, because she wants "to establish herself in his eyes not merely as a wife and mother of his children, but as someone with a past, someone who had had an adventure." In "Bloomsday in Bangkok," a young American woman living in Thailand with her husband in the 1960s imagines her friends back home "pushing carts in the supermarket, making piecrusts, changing diapers, while their husbands left their cramped houses, half awake in the mornings, to go to banks, to practice law, to sort mail." In "Pérou," even a five-year-old spurns notions of decorum as she and her mother watch a polo match:
Once or twice, when the horses come galloping over to us, I am sprayed with flecks of sweat from their necks and, for some reason, this pleases me and I try to lick the sweat off my face with my tongue. Looking down, my mother frowns and says something I do not catch. Then, she takes out a handkerchief from her purse and hands it to me but, instead of using it, I let the handkerchief drop to the ground and stand on it so my mother won't notice.
The characters also find that other people's domestic situations can look good from the outside but turn out on closer inspection to be surprisingly uncomfortable, even dingy. In the title story, Ella is invited to the home of the wealthiest man in France and endures an unappetizing dinner of canned vegetables and a flavorless soufflé; since her host turns off the heat in the evenings to conserve electricity, she is chilled through by the time she leaves. In "St. Guilhem-le-Désert," Anna's friend Nina seems to lead a romantic bohemian life with her musician boyfriend and their two children in a French village, but their picturesque old cottage is damp and poorly heated, and the boyfriend is far from an ideal partner.
Of these beautifully written and resonant stories, one of the most memorable and disturbing is "My Flame." At one time in her life Alison was a paragon of domestic serenity: a stay-at-home mom in suburban Virginia who organized carpools, took her twin boys to hockey practice, and volunteered at an art museum. Another character admires Alison's "calm, her good humor, her perfect figure, . . . how organized everything in her house was and how clean; the healthy fresh food, the meals always on time." Interestingly, however, by the time we learn of this, we already know that Alison has left that past—that self—behind, and is now an artist living in Paris, long divorced, her sons grown. We see the "before" and the "after," not the moments of dissatisfaction rising to consciousness, the moment of departure. Tuck also makes the interesting choice to let the reader know on the second page (thus I'm not spoiling anything here) that the ex-husband, Mark, is dead. In the opening pages of the story, we get a brief sense of Mark's boorishness, then we learn he's dead, then we spend some time in his point of view, all before we learn about his contemptible behavior—behavior that Alison knows nothing about until the end of the story. The author makes several such breath-taking leaps in time in this story, complicating our feelings for the characters in fascinating ways. She uses the story's title to good effect too, playing with the various meanings of a "flame"—not just a sweetheart (a term Mark used for Alison and his previous girlfriends), but also a person's inner fire or life force, the thing that Alison has had to reclaim.
Tuck is an astute observer of the small gestures and unspoken messages conveyed in personal interactions. For example, in "The House at Belle Fontaine," set in France around 1970, Ella is ignored by her elderly male neighbor even when they're ostensibly having a conversation. Tuck brilliantly conveys what it feels like when the mere fact of being female means to be effaced:
Ella sits and listens and tries to show genuine interest in his problems and in his memories. She nods and shakes her head and says yes and no at the appropriate moments, although she knows it really does not matter what she says, because Monsieur Rossier is not listening or paying attention to her. . . .
[Later, when he pours her a sherry,] Ella thanks him and half-raises her glass. "To your health," she says, but since Monsieur Rossier does not acknowledge her gesture, she lowers her glass.
Ella's reaction—or lack thereof—is a compelling part of the story. Invisibility, it seems, is so much a part of the normal fabric of life that she doesn't seem to resent it. The story is almost painful to read.
Tuck's work has earned impressive accolades: her 1999 novel Siam, or, The Woman Who Shot a Man was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award; and The News from Paraguay (2004) won the National Book Award. Her most recent novel, I Married You for Happiness (2011), was a brilliant meditation on the intricacies of marriage that also earned praise from critics. The current collection includes two winners of the PEN/O. Henry award: "Ice" in 2011, and "Pérou" in 2013. Still, Tuck seems like one of those brilliant writers you never hear about. She deserves a wider readership.
I also find it interesting that Tuck, born in 1938, was fifty-three when her first book was published in 1991. While her elegant prose style is all her own, her confidence and breadth of vision remind me of several other authors who first published at a relatively older age or who produced great literature in their sixties and seventies: Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Harriet Doerr. There is nothing glib or hipsterish about Lily Tuck's fiction, just subtle, thought-provoking explorations of long and complex lives, marriages that are "more or less still intact" and marriages that are shaken off like a bad dream; women who escape from home and women who create new ones.
You can purchase The House at Belle Fontaine
Rosalie Morales Kearns is an Albany, NY-based writer. One of the stories in her collection Virgins and Tricksters (Aqueous Books, 2012) earned a Special Mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize volume. Her stories, poems, and nonfiction have appeared most recently in Witness, The Nervous Breakdown, Necessary Fiction, and Her Kind.