The House at Belle Fontaine: Stories

The House at Belle Fontaine: Stories

by Lily Tuck

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“Tuck is a genius”—Los Angeles Times

Winner of the National Book Award, Lily Tuck follows her critically-acclaimed novel I Married You For Happiness with an elegantly constructed story collection about lives tethered to the past and the unexpected encounters that threaten to unmoor them. The House at Belle Fontaine is


“Tuck is a genius”—Los Angeles Times

Winner of the National Book Award, Lily Tuck follows her critically-acclaimed novel I Married You For Happiness with an elegantly constructed story collection about lives tethered to the past and the unexpected encounters that threaten to unmoor them. The House at Belle Fontaine is at once unexpected and familiar, and wholly memorable for its spare depiction of characters on the brink of transformation.

The powerfully intimate stories within The House at Belle Fontaine span the better part of the twentieth century and almost every continent, laying bare apprehensions, passions, secrets, and tragedies that resonate across time and space. In crisp, spare, and penetrating prose, Lily Tuck unveils and suppresses personal truths as her characters navigate exotic locales and immediate emotional territory: an artist learns that her deceased ex-husband had an especially illicit affair seventeen years before his death; a young couple living in Thailand worries about the mental stability of their best friend, a U. S. army captain; on a ship bound for Antarctica, a retired couple strains to hold together their forty-year-old marriage; and a French family flees to Lima in the 1940s with devastating consequences for their daughter’s young nanny.

The House at Belle Fontaine reveals the extraordinary in the everyday and the perpetuity of the past. With a deft and expert hand, Tuck excavates the opportunities that arise from loss, and the moments that knock lives into a collision course and an uncertain future.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Winner of the National Book Award for her novel The News from Paraguay, Tuck proves she is equally gifted in the short form with stories reaching far into the physical and emotional senses. Her characters travel from Paris to Peru and from Bangkok to Tuscany, often within the same story. One memorable narrative ventures even further by following a long-married couple on a cruise to Antarctica that evokes the chilly distance between them that has widened through the years. Other stories span the decades, going as far back (through myth and memory) to the reign of Genghis Khan, who may or may not be the ancestor of a fellow named Chingis, born in the Caucasus in 1925, who teaches horse riding to teenage girls in a New England town circa 1970. VERDICT Tuck's agility and grace as a storyteller are quietly evident throughout her impressive collection. This is a writer at the top of her form.—Sue Russell, Bryn Mawr, PA
Publishers Weekly
The 10 stories in the latest collection from National Book Award–winner Tuck (for her novel The News from Paraguay) are compact, intense, and finely crafted. Tuck opens private windows into the lives of women in foreign lands, often on their own after unsuccessful relationships and often set in the past. Creating a decoupage of images and brief exchanges, Tuck pieces together her characters’ stories indirectly, with an economy of words, as in “Pérou,” when an au pair is raped by the family’s chauffeur: “More things tear and break. Poor Jeanne.” This style sometimes gives the writing an opaque quality, as in “My Flame,” when a middle-aged woman thinks back on her discovery of her husband’s betrayal after his death. But the method packs a punch. From blood on the ice around seals encountered by an aging couple on a trip to the Antarctic “looking like paint splashed on a canvas” in “Ice,” to the fatal car crash of another woman’s ex-husband, witnessed by her young tenant and his girlfriend, in “Lucky,” violence is an accepted part of life to the characters who inhabit these stories. These women, unsatisfied with their lives, go searching for answers to their longing, and though they do not find them, the reader understands that the act of striking out away from the known is somehow, itself, enough. Agent: Georges Borchardt, Georges Borchardt Literary Agency. (May)
"Compact, intense, and finely crafted . . . Packs a punch . . . Tuck opens private windows into the lives of women in foreign lands. . . . These women, unsatisfied with their lives, go searching for answers to their longing, and though they do not find them, the reader understands that the act of striking out away from the known is somehow, itself, enough."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Remarkable for its technical expertise . . . Impressive work from a virtuoso.”—Kirkus Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Death haunts this dark collection of 10 stories from Tuck (I Married You for Happiness, 2011, etc.). Ella is an American divorcee raising her children in France in the title story. She's a tenant on the estate of one of the richest (and oldest) men in the country. Her arrival coincided with a horrendous plane crash nearby; hundreds died. Ella has been summoned to dinner with her landlord on a cold winter's night: The story is suffused in existential dread. That same dread affects Maud in "Ice." She and husband Peter, retirees, are on an Antarctic cruise. Peter's nighttime disappearance, re-awakening her old fears, is far more frightening than the surrounding icebergs. "Lucky" is more complicated. Six characters' lives intersect; the model is the play/movie Six Degrees of Separation. An alcoholic crashes his car and dies; that's the heart of a story remarkable for its technical expertise. That expertise is also evident in "Sure and Gentle Words." It begins with a German professor's mysterious and fatal fall from a train in 1911, touches lightly on two momentous sexual encounters and one world war, and ends some 20 years later with the professor's son interpreting that fall in his film. Dislocation is a recurrent theme. An American couple discovers that going native in Thailand can have a boomerang effect: It's not pretty. ("Bloomsday in Bangkok"). "Pérou" offers a more extreme example of cultural dislocation. A young French nanny travels with her employer to South America in 1940 to avoid the war. Her fate there seems almost gratuitously cruel. There's nothing cruel about Chingis in "The Riding Teacher," though he's a descendant of one of the great killer conquerors of history, Genghis Khan. All that this gentle, unhappy man has inherited is superb horsemanship. Leave contemporary cruelty to Mark, the unfaithful husband in "My Flame," who takes shocking advantage of his vulnerable niece in a story that burns with a wicked flame indeed. Impressive work from a virtuoso.

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On board the Caledonia Star, sailing through the Beagle Channel and past the city of Ushuaia on their way to Antarctica, Maud’s husband says, “Those lights will probably be the last we’ll see for a while.”

Mountains rise stark and desolate on both sides of the shore; already there does not look to be room for people. Above, the evening sky, a sleety gray, shifts to show a little patch of the lightest blue. Standing on deck next to her husband, Maud takes it for a good omen–the ship will not founder, they will not get seasick, they will survive the journey, their marriage more or less still intact.

Also, Maud spots her first whale, another omen; she spots two.

In the morning, early, the ship’s siren sounds, a fire drill. Maud and Peter quickly put on waterproof pants, boots, sweaters, parkas, hats, gloves–in the event of an emergency, they have been told to wear their warmest clothes. They strap on the life jackets that are hanging from a hook on the back of their cabin door and follow their fellow passengers up the stairs. The first officer directs them to the ship’s saloon; they are at Station 2, he tells them. On deck, Maud can see the life boats being lowered smoothly and efficiently and not, Maud can’t help but think, how it must have been on board the Andrea Doria–a woman, who survived the ship’s collision, once told Maud, how undisciplined and negligent the Italian crew were. The first officer is French–the captain and most of the other officers are Norwegian–and he is darkly handsome. As he explains the drill, he looks steadily and impassively above the passengers’ heads as if, Maud thinks, the passengers are cattle; in vain, she tries to catch his eye. When one of the passengers tries to interrupt with a joke, the first officer rebukes him with a sharp shake of the head and continues speaking.

When the drill is over and still wearing his life jacket, Peter leaves the saloon, saying he is going up on deck to breathe some fresh air and Maud goes back down to the cabin.

Of the eighty-or-so passengers on board the Caledonia Star, the majority are couples, a few single women travel together; one woman is in a wheelchair. The average age, Maud guesses, is mid to late sixties and, like them–Peter was a lawyer and Maud a speech therapist (she still works three days a week at a private school)–most are retired professionals. And although Maud and Peter learned about the cruise from their college alumni magazine, none of the passengers–some of whom they assume must have attended the same college–look familiar to them. “Maybe they all took correspondence courses,” Peter says. Since his retirement, Peter has been restless and morose. “No one,” he complains to Maud, “answers my phone calls.” The trip to Antarctica was Maud’s idea. When Maud steps out on deck to look for Peter, she does not right away see him. The ship rolls from side to side–they have started to cross the Drake Passage–and already they have lost sight of land. When Maud finally finds Peter, her relief is so intense she nearly shouts as she hurries over to him. Standing at the ship’s rail, looking down at the water, Peter does not appear to notice Maud. Finally, without moving his head, he says in a British-inflected, slightly nasal voice, “Did you know that the Drake Passage is a major component of the coupled ocean-atmosphere climate system and that it connects all the other major oceans and that it influences the water-mass characteristics of the deep water over a large portion of the world?”

“Of course, darling,” Maud answers in the same sort of voice and takes Peter’s arm. “Everyone knows that.”

Peter has an almost photographic memory and is, Maud likes to say, the smartest man she has ever met. Instead of being a lawyer, Peter claims that he would have preferred to have been a mathematician. He is an attractive man; tall and athletic-looking, although he walks with a slight limp–he broke his leg as a child and the leg did not set properly–which gives him a certain vulnerability and adds to his appeal (secretly, Maud accuses him of exaggerating the limp to elicit sympathy) and he still has a full head of hair, notwithstanding that it has turned gray, which he wears surprisingly long. Maud, too, is good looking; slim, tall and blonde (the blonde is no longer natural but such a constant Maud would be hard put to say what her natural color was) and her blue eyes, she claims, are still her best feature. Together, they make a handsome couple; they have been married for over forty years.

Maud knows Peter so well that she also knows that when he adopts this bantering tone with her he is either hiding something or he is feeling depressed. Or both. Instinctively, she tightens her grip on his arm.

“Let’s go in,” she says to him in her normal voice, “I’m cold.”

In their cabin, the books, the clock, the bottle of sleeping pills, everything that had been neatly stacked on the night stand is, on account of the ship’s motion, lying pell-mell on the floor.

Instead of a double bed, their cabin has two narrow bunks. The bunks are made up in an unusual way, a Norwegian way, Maud guesses–the sheet wrapped around the blanket as if it were a parcel and tucked in. In her bed, Maud feels as if she were lying inside a cocoon, also, she does not dislike sleeping alone for a change. As if Peter could read her mind–he has an uncanny ability to do this sometimes–he pats the side of his bunk and says, “Come here for a minute, Maud.” Maud hesitates, then decides not to answer. She does not feel like making love–too much trouble and often, recently, sex does not work out which makes her anxious and Peter anxious and angry both. Over their heads, on the wall, the public address speaker crackles and a voice says: “ Long before the poet, Samuel Coleridge, penned his Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the albatross was a creature of reverence and superstition. The sailors believed that when their captain died the captain’s soul took the form of an albatross. Of course I cannot speak for our excellent Captain Halvorsen but I, for one, would not mind being reincarnated as an albatross.” In the bed next to Maud, Peter snorts and says again, “Maudie, come over here.” Maud pretends not to hear him. “By the way, my name is Michael,” the voice continues, “and in case you have not yet met me I am your naturalist on board.” Peter says something that Maud does not quite catch although she can guess at the meaning. “ The albatross has the largest wingspan–the record, I believe is thirteen feet, three inches – and the oldest known albatross is seventy years old . When he is ten, the albatross goes back to where he was born to mate–” Maud tenses for a comment from Peter but this time he makes none. The public address speaker crackles with static, “...feeds at night ... eats luminous squid, fish and krill.” Maud looks over at Peter’s bunk and sees that Peter’s eyes are closed. Relieved, she reaches up to turn down the volume on the speaker as Michael says, “The albatross will fly for miles without moving its wing, or setting foot on land. Soaring and gliding over the water, the albatross’s zigzag flight is determined by the wind.”

The captain’s cocktail party is held in the saloon–or, as Maud refers to it, Emergency Station 2. She is dressed in her best slacks and a red cashmere sweater and Peter wears his blue blazer and a tie. The saloon is packed tight with passengers who are all talking at once. Right away, Maud orders a vodka martini at the bar while Peter has a beer.

“Take it easy,” Peter says, handing her the martini.

The ship’s motion is more pronounced and Maud hangs on to the edge of the bar with one hand, she holds her martini glass in the other. Sometimes Maud drinks too much. She blames her age and the fact that she is thin and cannot hold her liquor the way she used to and not the actual amount she drinks. Standing in the center of the room, Captain Halvorsen is a tall man with thinning red hair, he smiles politely as he talks to the passengers. Maud guesses that he must dread this evening and the enforced sociability. Looking around the room, she does not see the darkly handsome first officer. A woman holding a golf club–at first, Maud thought she was holding a cane–walks over to them and, standing next to Peter at the bar, orders a glass of white wine.

“If I am not mistaken, that’s a five iron you have in your hand,” Peter says to her in his nasal voice.
“Yes, it is,” the woman answers. She is dark and trim and does not smile.

“Do you always travel with a golf club?” Peter, when he wants, can be charming and he can act as if he is completely entranced by what the person he is speaking to is saying and, if that person happens to be a woman, Maud tends to resent it even though she knows that Peter’s attention may not be entirely genuine. Peter continues, “By the way, my name is Peter and this is my wife, Maud.”

“I’m Barbara,” the woman says. “And, yes, I always travel with my golf club.”

“As protection?” Maud manages to ask.

“No,” Barbara frowns. “My goal is to drive a golf ball in every country of the world.”


“And have you?” Peter asks. He does a little imitation golf swing, holding his bottle of beer in both hands. When, in the past, Maud has accused Peter of toying with people, Peter has accused Maud of misreading him.

“As a matter of fact, I have. Or nearly. Except for Antarctica, which of course is not a country but a continent, and a few African nations which are too dangerous. I began twenty years ago–”

Why? Maud is tempted to ask.

“After my husband died,” Barbara says as if to answer Maud.

“Can you get me another martini?” Maud says to Peter.

That night, Maud cannot sleep. Every time she closes her eyes, she feels dizzy and nauseated and she has to open her eyes again, she tries sitting up in bed. To make matters worse, the Caledonia Star creaks and shudders as all night the ship pitches and lurches through a heavy sea. Once, after a particularly violent lurch, Maud calls out to Peter but either he is asleep and does not hear her or, perverse, he does not answer her. To herself, Maud vows that she will never have another drink.
In the morning, at seven according to the clock that is on the floor–Maud has finally managed to sleep for a few hours–Maud and Peter are awoken by the now familiar voice on the public address speaker.

“Good morning, folks! It’s Michael! I hope you folks were not still sleeping! For those of you who are on the starboard side of the ship–that means the right side for the landlubbers–if you look out your porthole real quick, you’ll see a couple of Minke whales.”

When Maud looks outside, the sea is calm and it is raining.

“Do you see them?” Peter asks from his bed.

“No,” Maud says. “I don’t see any Minke whales.”

“Michael is lying to us,” Peter says rolling over on to his other side. “Be a good girl,” he also says, “and give me a back rub. This mattress is for the birds.”

In the rubber zodiac, Maud starts to feel better. The cold air clears her head and she is looking forward to walking on land. Behind her, the Caledonia Star rests solidly at anchor as they make their way across to Livingston Island. The passengers in the boat are all wearing orange life jackets as well as identical red parkas–when Maud enquired about the parkas, she was told that red was easy to see and made it easier for the crew to tell whether any passenger was left behind on shore . And had a passenger ever been left behind? Maud continued to ask. Yes, once. A woman had tried to hide. Hide? Why? Maud had asked again but she got no reply.

Holding her golf club between her legs, Barbara sits across from them in the zodiac. Instead of a cap she wears a visor that has Golfers make better Lovers printed on it. Michael, the naturalist, is young, blond and bearded and he drives the zodiac with smooth expertise. Once he lands the boat, he gives each passenger a hand, cautioning them: “Careful where you walk, the ground may be slippery. And, steer clear of those seals,” he also says, pointing. “Especially the big fur seal, he’s not friendly.”

Looking like giant rubber erasers, about a dozen seals are lying close together along the shore; their beige and gray hides are mottled and scarred, and except for one seal who raises his head to look at them–the fur seal no doubt–as they walk past, none of the seals move. Maud gives them a wide berth and makes no eye contact; Peter, on the other hand, deliberately walks up closer to them and takes several photos of the seals.

A few yards inland, Maud sees Barbara lean over to tee-up a golf ball. She watches as Barbara takes up her stance in front of it then takes a few practice swings. Several of the other passengers are watching her as well. One man calls out, “Make it a hole-in-one, Barbara!”

The golf ball sails straight toward the brown cliffs that rise from the shore; a few people applaud. Barbara tees up and hits another golf ball, then another. Each time, the sound is a sharp crack, like ice breaking.

Michael is right, it is slippery, wet shale and bits of snow litter the ground; also there are hundreds–no, perhaps, thousands–of penguins on Livingston Island. Maud has to watch where she steps. It would not do, she thinks, to break a leg in Antarctica or to crush a penguin. Like the seals, the penguins appear to be oblivious to people. They are small and everywhere underfoot and Maud feels as if she is walking among dwarves.

When Peter catches up to her, he says, “You think one of these penguins is going to try to brood on a golf ball.”

“Incubate, you mean,” Maud says. “You brood on a chick.”

“Whatever,” Peter answers, turning away from her. He does not like being corrected and although Maud should know better by now, old habits die hard.

What People are saying about this

“Remarkable for its technical expertise . . . Impressive work from a virtuoso.”—Kirkus Reviews

Meet the Author

Lily Tuck is the author of four previous novels: Interviewing Matisse, The Woman Who Walked on Water, Siam, which was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, The News from Paraguay, winner of the National Book Award, and I Married You For Happiness.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
October 10, 1939
Place of Birth:
Paris, France
B.A., Radcliffe (Harvard); M.A., Sorbonne, Paris

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