National Book Award-winner Lily Tuck’s seventh novel is very, very short. One hundred fifty-six pages, to be precise, many of them consisting of just a few sentences. A fast reader can tear through it in about an hour.
Like the breadth of its spine, the scope of the narrative is extremely narrow. Tuck’s “The News from Paraguay’’ wove a sweeping tale about President Francisco Solano López and his mistress through multiple perspectives, but “Sisters’’ is more closely aligned with Tuck’s 2011 novel, “I Married You for Happiness,’’ which, although 50 pages longer than “Sisters,’’ focused on a wife’s memories of her marriage, set over the course of one night.
Also written in the first person, “Sisters,’’ too, tells the story of a marriage, this one decidedly more solipsistic. It conveys the inner life of a woman preoccupied with her husband’s first wife. Tuck names neither of these women, nor their husband, nor her two teenage stepchildren. In lieu of names or length, Tuck offers instead another minimalist masterpiece, a tight knot of a novel filled with intertextual puzzles, pathos, and happy rewards.
Tuck drops the reader into the second wife’s story in media res, with her marriage and fixation on her husband’s ex well underway. (Tuck’s not one for exposition.) Second Wife calls First Wife she — italics Tuck’s — a stylistic choice that adds a hint of menace every time the word appears, not least because it gives the impression that First Wife is so monolithic as to occupy the entire pronoun.
“She is blond, fair-skinned, big-boned, and taller than I,” Second Wife, who is “dark and petite,” observes. “Her best feature is her nose — a Grecian nose, I think they call it — the sort that has no bridge and starts straight from the forehead. Like Michelangelo’s ‘David.’ ”
The comparisons don’t stop there. She raised two children; Second Wife has none. She is a classically trained pianist while Second Wife has a tin ear. She makes a killer bouillabaisse, a word that Second Wife isn’t quite sure how to pronounce. Complicating matters is the fact that Second Wife seduced her unnamed husband while he was still married to First Wife — whoopsie daisy!
Where might all this insecurity lead Second Wife? Is she going to murder First Wife? Burn down her house? Skin her pets? Readers will race to find out. Tuck keeps us hooked by flashing to Second Wife’s enticingly purblind memories. “I had nothing to do with the divorce,” she recalls. “Yes, it was true that I had met him while he was still married, but by then he and his wife were not getting along. In fact, as he later confessed to me, he and his wife had not had sex in over six months.”
At the edges of Second Wife’s laser focus on First Wife, we catch blurry glimpses of the rest of Second’s life. Her marriage, to an inattentive man often away on business, disappoints, although her husband is given far more mental real estate than his children. We learn her stepdaughter, whom she calls “the girl,” looks “beautiful” on her wedding day (we learn a whole lot more about Second Wife’s outfit). Her stepson, “the boy,” “got into drugs for a while.” He plays a larger role in the story at the end of the novel, but we never do learn his name. We hear more about peripheral characters like a coworker named Margarita and an old flame named Tim.
Instead of people, art is what really makes Second Wife tick. A sly, early reference to Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca’’ clues the reader into the fact that Second Wife has a modicum of self-awareness. In fact, she might be something of an intellectual — a weird, insular one, but an intellectual nevertheless. She spends pages contemplating the technique of the real-life pianist Jacob Lateiner, cast here as First Wife’s mentor. Second Wife loves Russian film and knows enough about American literature to make a cameo from a famously divisive novelist into a hysterical scene. It is through these intertextual reveries that Tuck is able to pack so much heft into such a small package.
Most notably, Tuck mines the stories of great men, including Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, Czech president Vaclav Havel, and others, who married younger women the second time around. Little did we know that this could be such a fruitful area of contemplation. Nor could anyone have predicted that the novel’s publication should coincide with the indelible image of our first lady, the president’s third wife, striding across the tarmac to board a plane to Houston, in five-inch stiletto heels.
By Lily Tuck
Grove, 156 pp., $20
Eugenia Williamson is a Chicago writer and editor.