The Fortress is a memoir narrated in first person by Danielle Trussoni about her second marriage, how it began, and what happened over the ten years of its duration. The author makes herself incredibly vulnerable to judgment by the reader as she goes into excruciating details about the good, bad, and terrible parts of her marriage and what it means to live with someone with whom she’s increasingly disenchanted. I couldn’t look away from this story of the awful wreck of two people’s lives and the awful wreck of their marriage.
Danielle is a graduate student of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She’s married to Sam and has a son, Alex, by him. But when she meets Nikolai, a Bulgarian novelist and a student, she throws her marriage out of the window and throws herself completely into love. Sam is devastated.
Sam was crying into his hands and saying, “Why are you doing this? and all the while I sat there stupidly silent, watching him cry. I just knew I needed to go. I believed that my future was waiting for me.
By the time Danielle graduates from the program, Nikolai has written well-received novels in Bulgarian and English, but his visa has expired requiring him to return to Bulgaria for a short period of time. He’s desperate to hold on to Danielle, saying that he cannot survive without her and going back to Bulgaria without her is unthinkable. She willingly uproots two-year-old Alex to be with Nikolai, because she wants to be everything to him. She doesn’t love with confidence and independence, but rather as an acolyte, always subservient.
Nikolai is cultured. He almost won the much-lauded Chopin competition at the tender age of nine; he talks eruditely about literature and international politics, and she is wholly enamored of the image he projects. After they move to Bulgaria, Danielle finds out she’s pregnant and that Nikolai’s visa status requires a two-year stay in the country.
She is horrified but cannot imagine a separation. So the two of them marry and cling together in poverty, completely dependent on handouts from Nikolai’s doting parents. Aided by them, Nikolai goes against Danielle’s wishes on small things and big things, but she has such a dysfunctional relationship with love that instead of trying to understand and contemplate what her relationship is, she wallows in what it should be. She’s in love with being in love, and makes her decisions based completely on her emotions instead of making them with her rational mind. She is utterly besotted by Nikolai, and as a result, she desperately tries to shoehorn him into the starring role she wants him to play.
I believed in love at first sight. I believed that when I found the right person, time would stop and we would be suspended in a state of endless passion. There was no place in my hope chest for disappointment of failure. There was no place for imperfection or broken promises or compromise.
After the two years in Bulgaria is up, the four of them (Danielle, Nikolai and the two children) move to Providence, Rhode Island where they both begin teaching and writing. One day, she finds evidence that Nikolai has slept with a student of his, but he flatly denies any such thing. She’s desperate to believe him and concedes that she made a mistake, but another tear is made to the fabric of their relationship.
A few years later, in a frenzied bid to save her marriage, Danielle uproots her family and moves to the small village of Aubais in the Provençal district of France. There, they buy La Commanderie, a thirteenth century fortress of the Knights Templar. She puts her kids into French schools and she and Nikolai settle into the life of two novelists. By this time, Danielle has become a successful novelist and memoirist, garnering praise in respected review journals with high monetary remuneration and.is now financially supporting their family ninety percent of the time.
But for me, love meant proving myself — emotionally and financially — and laying these proofs of love at the feel of my beloved.
Despite this decision, Nikolai and Danielle start living increasingly estranged lives. Danielle revels in pointing out Nikolai’s many faults and strange starts, sometimes to the point of excrescence. It’s not that she doesn’t castigate herself, she does, but she dwells so much on his faults, relishing putting him down at every turn, that while I didn’t end up feeling sorry for him, neither did I feel sorry for her.
Yet that is her intent. She wants the reader on her side, championing her in the execrable marriage she launched into and continues with heedless abandon and without forethought despite distinct forebodings that would have given a sensible person pause.
The book is a fast read about two people who are unhinged and depressed and yet in an atrocious manner make sense. They’re divorced from any sense of reality or normalcy, dragging two small children in their destructive wake. The subtitle of the book is A Love Story, and it is a narcissistic love story of Danielle by Danielle.
But in the midst of all this impetuous and hazardous living is the gorgeous beauty of the French countryside and details about life in France. The language is gorgeous, articulate, and nuanced and she really brings France alive for the reader. It is the reason I picked up this book as well as to continue my study of marriage in literature. I was amply rewarded in both my goals, but the dysfunctional protagonists of the story were a total turn-off. The Fortress is not a book for the faint-of-heart.