Lily Tuck has written acclaimed short fiction and essays, a biography, and several well-received novels: 2004's "The News from Paraguay'' was a surprise National Book Award winner. Her latest work, "The Double Life of Liliane,'' combines many of these modes — history, biography, memoir, fiction — in an intriguing and intelligent if at times overstuffed and disorienting portrait of an artist's coming of age.
The book's epigraph from Jeanette Winterson — "Part fact part fiction is what life is" — establishes Tuck's metafictional ambitions. Interspersed photos, journal entries, and snippets of creative writing help create the desired kaleidoscopic effect. The prologue, to take one example of this play with perspective, is in the first person — "As a child I am often sick" — while the narrative proper is in the third: "Liliane's double life begins at New York's Idlewild Airport when she boards a Trans World Airlines L-749 Constellation, the first commercial plane to cross the Atlantic nonstop thanks to its additional fuel tanks." Such displacement from an 8-year-old's observations to hyper-realistic (and probably superfluous) historical notation is exemplary of the book to come, for good and ill.
What's more, we will come to know that the tale's first sentence is false: This isn't actually the beginning of Liliane's double life. Born in Paris to German parents whose frequent arguing she overhears and whose affairs she is uncomfortably aware of, forced to flee with her mother to South America when Hitler comes to power, Liliane has always been a displaced person.
The sense of doubleness certainly intensifies when her parents divorce, and Liliane must travel on that TWA flight from New York to Rome, where Rudy, her charismatic movie producer father, now lives. Rudy "drives an expensive sports car," dines at hot spots, hobnobs with Anna Magnani and Josephine Baker, and has a procession of girlfriends, to whom the little girl successively becomes attached, then misses. He takes her to museums and churches (Liliane is more interested in buying gift-shop postcards to send to her mother and friends in the United States than she is in the art). Rudy "is not accustomed to looking after a little girl, [and] . . . does not know what to do with her all day . . . [or] what to say to her."
Mother is not much better. Irene, whose beauty is "compared to Greta Garbo's and Marlene Dietrich's," lives the pampered life of a woman of leisure with her second husband, Gaby, a WASPy investment banker, in New York City. She was a promising painter but was discouraged from pursuing it by her "conservative" husband. Over time, she becomes increasingly fragile and nearly dies after overdosing on sleeping pills during Liliane's senior year of high school. Gaby initially finds his stepdaughter uninteresting, but perversely perks up when she becomes an attractive young woman.
Faced with such parents, Liliane seeks rootedness in her aunts and her grandmother. A curious child, hungry for stories, she peppers them with questions about the family. She rifles through her father's desk drawers for letters, pores over clues, studies photos. "Always, she begs her grandmother to tell her more stories," repeatedly asking: "Is this true? Or are you making this up?"
As Liliane shuttles back and forth between these two very different worlds, the book jumps around wildly in time and space. Although this strategy has some clear advantages — it enables Tuck to fill in blanks, present scenes Liliane wouldn't have been privy to, and make an epistemological point about continuity — it comes with costs. As much as it unsettles our hidebound assumptions about plot and identity, it also frequently muddles the dramatic tension and distracts our interest.
The frequent interpolation of historical anecdote (everything from Hitler's ascendance, to the 1963 Career Girls Murders in New York City, to the Italian working class and diphtheria outbreaks ) is a similarly double-edged narrative device. These digressions, while they provide a sense of being anchored in the real world, also weaken our attachment to individual characters and diminish suspense.
Which is also to say that "The Double Life of Liliane'' is nothing if not about being willing to risk its appeal to pursue its philosophy. As Liliane progresses from passive ward of her parents to active investigator of her family history, she becomes — no surprise here — a writer.
In "The Double Life of Liliane,'' Tuck simultaneously creates a layered portrait of a family and the historical eras it lived through and questions the possibility of definitively capturing or summing up human lives. It's a high-wire act that she doesn't always manage successfully, but is nonetheless exciting in its sweep, ambition, and conceptual intricacy.
THE DOUBLE LIFE OF LILIANE
By Lily Tuck
Atlantic Monthly, 256 pp., $26
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of "The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.''