June 25, 2016: “La Mayonette” by Lily Tuck

Hello, Story366! Today I’m writing about Lily Tuck’s collection Limbo and Other Places I Have Lived, out from Riverhead. Tuck is the author of another story collection, a biograpy, and several novels in addition to Limbo, most notably The News From Paraguay, which won a National Book Award. I’d never read anything by Tuck before today, so I looked her up, and in addition to all her books, I found out that she was born in France, but now splits time between New York and Maine, and that she has lived all over the world, on a few different continents. This makes sense, as Limbo is a collection of stories about people spending time in other places, be it because they’re on holiday, living somewhere for work, or because they’re in forced exile. The characters originate from many different countries to begin with, so what we have is a real hodge-podge of cultures colliding with each other, making for a lot people out of their element, a lot of people dealing with cultural and social differences, and as you might guess, a lot of people not necessarily making the adjustments.

I’ve read a few of the stories in this collection and am settling on the first story I read, the lead piece, “La Mayonette.” “La Mayonette” is the story of a family—a mom, dad, and two young boys—who rent a house (the house is named La Mayonette) in France for a month, a house that’s near the Riviera beaches and just next door to the mom’s college friend, Francine, and her husband and two young daughters. We’re not exactly sure where the visiting family is from—I assumed America for a long time, but reading into the book and understanding the project made disregard that assumption—or all that much about them in general. The mom, the first-person protagonist, doesn’t reveal too much about them, instead focusing on what everyone’s up to in the frontstory, more or less. The family rides bikes, cooks simple meals with foods from the local market, and wander over to the beach, just a twenty-minute drive away. Oh, and they drink a lot of wine: They buy more at the start of the month than they think they can drink, and gosh darn it, before the month’s over, they’ve emptied the coffers and wish they’d bought more.

This sounds like a pretty ideal set-up, doesn’t it? I don’t speak French, nor have I traveled outside the U.S. except to Mexico and Canada, but this situation—staying in a house just off the Riviera for a month, drinking wine and eating baguettes—sounds nifty. Because this is a short story, though, and not a fairy tale, things do go wrong, although not as wrong as you’d think. One of the boys breaks his arm. Our protagonist and her husband fight. The protagonist has eyes for Francine’s husband, Didier, even “forgetting” to put on her top when she’s sunbathing and Didier stops by. So, it’s not exactly Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, but we get a glimpse into people’s lives, lives that the average Joe might find ideal, but maybe they aren’t. Remember: I told you they ran out of wine.

Because we never get that shocking plot point, the subtleties of “La Mayonette”—and the other stories I read in Limbo—are what reveal Tuck’s talents. Little character tics mean a lot here, often coming in reaction to something another character does, causing an avalanche, often of emotion rather than action. In addition to the minor setbacks I list above, our protagonist notices a woman’s face in the wallpaper—which seems to actually be there as part of the pattern—and psyches herself into a “Yellow Wallpaper”esque mini-breakdown. She never sleeps with Didier, but showing him her boobs and at one point, getting drunk and telling everyone what she’s thinking, all that is enough to paint some pretty intricate sketches.

All in all, Lily Tuck is able to really capture the feeling of being displaced in the stories in Limbo. Having just lived in my mom’s guest room for eight days made me feel for these characters, as limbo is a good way to describe what we went through. We don’t have our own space, we don’t have privacy, and even though there’s other options, I always myself sleeping on the living room floor, amid the morning bustle. This is no fault of my mom or my older brother (who lives with my mom), who are the most gracious and accommodating of hosts, just like the shenanigans of “La Mayonette” aren’t because of Francine or Didier. It’s about being in someone else’s space, and although I grew up in the house in question, it’s still an out-of-suitcase situation, which just isn’t home. Tuck captures that feeling with great skill, and takes us to some rather exotic locales to boot.

Lily Tuck