Book Review: The Double Life of Liliane
This odd, beautiful book from Lily Tuck is part memoir, part novel, part poetry, part historical quilt
Reviewed by Jessi Cape, Fri., Oct. 16, 2015
The Double Life of Lilianeby Lily Tuck
Atlantic Monthly Press, 256 pp., $26
This odd, beautiful new book from National Book Award-winner Lily Tuck is part memoir, part novel, part poetry, part historical quilt. It's a story of humanity, a menagerie painted in minuscule satellite vignettes and specks of space dust memory swirling around a small planet, a girl named Liliane. She wants to be a writer.
Paced like a road trip on cruise control, the book is third-person autobiographical fiction. Anchored in Liliane's personal timeline, from her birth in Paris in the late Thirties through college, it makes pit stops through World War II and across the globe, from Peru to Europe to New York City. Tuck draws the family tree and tells of Liliane's early years as a privileged only child bouncing among continents, sharing time with her divorced parents, each loving, if a little troubled. Her French mother, Irene, is a blond bombshell with penchants for exercise and art; her German father, Rudy, is a Jewish filmmaker residing in Italy. There are acquaintances and passersby, heroes and stars, and grandmothers and a notable stepfather, all threaded together. There is a famous, buxom courtesan and a deeply religious young nanny. Liliane's horse instructor paves the way for a story of Genghis Khan's mysterious burial; Josephine Baker and Mary, Queen of Scots, play roles, too, and old photographs pepper the book. At the story's core, though, we watch Liliane grow up. We see her eyes open to the world and to her own family – for better and worse: "She has a horror of speaking another language in America: of drawing attention to herself and of being labeled a foreigner. She wants to fit in or else disappear.
"Liliane imagines another life for herself as, walking down the narrow streets filled with the sweet smell of orange trees and jasmine, she catches sight of romantic-looking villas through closed iron gates or over stucco walls topped with bright bougainvillea and bits of broken glass."
Recollection makes a fine framework, but it's Tuck's italicized asides and her tapestry of minutiae and colorful stories – almost like flash fiction pieces – that really build the world, brick by brick, to hook a reader. The snippets of history, of truth, can hardly be separated from the embellishments, and maybe that makes everything more interesting. We hope Liliane continues to ask her many, many questions. We hope she'll tell her own stories, of her double life, someday, just as Lily Tuck has done.
Lily Tuck will appear at the session "Reading Between the Lines" with Heidi Julavits Sat., Oct. 17, noon, in Capitol Extension Rm. E2.014, 1100 Congress.