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Book review: The House at Belle Fontaine by Lily Tuck

While Tuck's incisive prose is admirable, her short-story collection offers few opportunities for a reader to invest emotionally.

By Manoli Kouremetis
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By Lily Tuck. Atlantic Monthly Press, $23.

The title story of Lily Tuck’s new collection is an account of an awkward dinner date between a woman and her aging landlord. In the clear prose familiar from her National Book Award–winning The News from Paraguay, Tuck describes a night of complications avoided and debates withheld. When the woman returns to her darkened home, she asks herself, “What can possibly happen to you?” Throughout The House at Belle Fontaine, the reader may ask a similar question—what, if anything, will transpire among these people?

Dramatic events do occur—death by automobile, expiring love, sucking leeches—but these feel like peripheral details rather than pivotal moments. Some of the stories come across more like demonstrations of vacation slides than examinations of characters and their struggles. For example, in “My Music,” a woman’s relationship with music is evocatively described, but the accounts of how certain musical pieces correspond with important times in her life are static. “Bloomsday in Bangkok” reads like a travelogue taken by all things exotic: Greater emphasis is placed on the italicized foreign words describing the setting than on the protagonists’ potential revelations. Even when a woman identifies her ex-husband’s corpse in the story “Lucky,” Tuck engages herself with the sunny colors of Tuscany rather than the emotionally difficult moment at hand.

Tuck’s thrifty, incisive prose is admirable, and her gift for describing the delicate nature of long-term relationships is effective. The attention to the visual details—or, perhaps for this collection, the term would be mise en scène—is also strong. But without an invitation to invest in these tales emotionally, the reader can only stride past as though they were fine clothing in well-dressed windows.

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