Critically acclaimed, New York Times bestselling author Danielle Trussoni returns with this much-anticipated memoir of love and transformation in the South of France. Out today from Dey Street, an imprint of William Morrow Publishers, The Fortress: A Love Story is a riveting account of one woman’s journey to the other side of the romantic fairy tale.
Watch a trailer for The Fortress below, and then enjoy an exclusive excerpt from the novel.
I was just getting used to our sleepy village when everything changed. At the beginning of August, protective iron gates began to appear on the streets, blocking the narrow, twisting roads at the center of Aubais. It was as if the village were preparing for a siege, the villagers slowly fortifying their stronghold.
On my daily visit to the boulangerie, where I’d perfected my order for “Une baguette” (feminine) and “Un pain au chocolat” (masculine), I noticed tables filled with new treasures: jars of local honey, pâte d’amande candies shaped like bananas and cherries, dried sausages made from bull’s meat, bottles of the local wine and olive oil. There was hardly enough room to squeeze into the shop.
I bought our bread and asked, in my best French, “What is all this?”
“Zis,” the blond-haired madame said, trying out her English, “zis is la Fête Votive!”
The Fête Votive d’Aubais, I would soon learn, was the highlight of the year for locals and tourists alike. It was a week of pure bacchanalia: wine, food, music, dancing, sex, and violence. The most famous event at the fête, and the reason for all the iron gates and protective fencing, was the daily running of the bulls, an event that occurred just before aperitif hour each day. Bull runs involved skill and danger, and many of the local boys waited all year to show off their prowess before the village.
On the first day of our very first fête, we walked to the main street and waited behind the gates, curious. Before us, with his twitching tail and sharp horns, stood an enormous, heaving black bull.
The villagers lined up along the main street, standing behind the protective iron gates, watching anxiously. A gun sounded, and a pack of white Camargue horses galloped up the street, running together like a single great wild beast, all legs and hooves. Charging after the horses was the bull, its horns long and sharp, its tail switching back and forth. A mob of teenage boys and young men in their twenties ran after the bull, trying to tackle and restrain it. One boy held the tail while another jumped on the neck while another grabbed the horns. Together they wrestled the beast to the pavement, absorbing the violent shocks of its twists and kicks. All the villagers screamed and cheered: Their boys had defeated the beast.
But sometimes they didn’t defeat the bull. Sometimes the bull got the best of the boys. And these moments, when they happened, could be gruesome. I once saw a man dragged in one wild sweep from the pharmacy to the mayor’s office. His shirt had ripped away, and his skin burned against the concrete, leaving his back raw and bloody. There were bull runs in many of the small villages surrounding Aubais—Calvisson, Aigues-Vives, Junas—and all of them had their share of injuries. One boy was gored by a horn; another boy was kicked in the chest, leaving a bruise the size of a wheel of blue cheese. But these were the risks they took to prove their strength and manhood. These injuries were the price of glory.
We met Lulu and her husband, Lord, at the festivities. “You must come and see tomorrow’s bull run from our balcony!” Lulu said, pointing to a huge maison de maître on one of the main streets, just across from the château. Nikolai and I—knowing no one in the village and feeling adrift in the festivities—were grateful to accept the invitation.
“We have the very best view in the village, and we allow absolutely no one up there. But as this is your first fête and your children are so very darling, you must come!”
Lulu was a witty, articulate woman with red hair, myopic blue eyes, and an overbite that produced an extremely aristocratic lisp. Lord was half Lulu’s size, thin as a rail, with elfin ears, twinkling eyes, and a long, bulbous nose. He’d been a jockey in his youth and still retained the disposition of a man ready to be thrown from a horse. With his tweeds and cap, he had all the markings of an English country gentleman and an obsession with examining the habits of the French as if labeling the anatomy of frogs in dissection.
“You see,” Lord said the next day, holding open the carved wooden door of their maison de maître as we went inside, “the French would never have invited you to their home upon first meeting you,” he said with an air of authority. “That is why I take such pleasure in having you here. I am English, and as such I invite perfect strangers—you, that is—to my home in the off chance you will be amusing.”
Lord handed us glasses of chilled rosé and led us up a winding staircase to the third-floor balcony. The view was magnificent, fields and vineyards stretching in every direction. Below, the main street of Aubais was packed with villagers, ready for the bull run.
“Look at that!” Lulu exclaimed as all the sexy jeunes hommes of Aubais took off their shirts, preparing to run after that afternoon’s bull. “What a view! Better than Chippendale’s.”
“I do like an au naturel look at the fête,” Lord chimed in. “Wine?” he asked, holding up a bottle to refill our glasses.
“Do have more,” Lulu said. “My advice: Drink a lot. It is the only way to feel even vaguely accepted by the villagers. They dislike foreigners. But don’t worry: They hate Parisians more than they hate us!”
“Of course,” Nikolai said, raising his glass for a refill, his charm turned all the way up. “Quite good, this local rosé!”
I shot Nikolai a look. Was it me, or had he picked up a British accent in the last five minutes? He was so adept at transforming his personality, at being a chameleon, that he could blend in almost anywhere. Some people might have thought this quality a defect, a kind of shiftiness, but I admired it. It was the writer in him, the novelist, picking up character.
“This is a fantastic painting,” Nikolai said, standing with his arms across his chest, examining one of the oils on the wall. “First-rate. Reminds me of the Dutch.”
“Are you keen on painting, Nikolai?” Lord asked, his eyes bright.
“Terribly,” Nikolai responded. “Especially painters of that period.”
If my weakness was blind romanticism, Nikolai’s weakness was pretension. He wanted to be admired for his intelligence, his refinement, his obscure references to Schubert and Nietzsche. Lord was exactly the kind of person Nikolai could impress.
“Bravo, old chap,” Lord said, slapping Nikolai on the back. “I don’t care what they say: Eastern Europeans are a jolly good addition to the European Union.”
A gun went off, signaling that the bull run was about to begin and warning the townspeople to stay off the streets.
“It is so exciting,” Lulu lisped, hanging over the balcony and waving to the boys below. “You can smell the sweat all the way up here.”
“Here they come,” Lord said.
Looking down the street, I saw the bull charging. In the distance, amid gusts of dust and rising shouts from the crowd, the white Camargue horses’ hooves slammed the pavement, their riders—the village cowboys—steering the bull this way and that, angling to one side, then pushing it away from the spectators.
“You see what they’re doing now, don’t you?” Lord said, nodding at the horses. “They’re slowing the bull down to give that poor kid a chance to gain his footing. Yes, that’s right, it is all one coordinated ballet, a beautiful masterpiece. And it is only here, from our balcony, that you will see it so well.”
I tried to see the masterpiece in the chaos, but all I could make out was a dustup of major proportions. Cowboys sat tall and strong on the horses, their hats perched on their heads, boots shiny in the afternoon sunlight. They were rough and beautiful and brutal.
“That big chap there,” Lord continued, pointing to a hulking boy. “He’s going to get this one.”
I peered over the iron railing, leaning into the hot, sticky, dust-filled air, watching as the beefy boy ran ahead of the pack, gaining on the bull, gaining, until, in one expert move, he leaped up, blocking its path. He grabbed the horns in his hands and, with a tremendous twist of his arms, screwed the head down to the ground, pinning it there. The bull kicked, but there were more men behind who, seeing that it was in a weak position, piled on, jumping on the beast’s back and yanking its tail and pushing it down, down until that great wild thing buckled to the ground. The population of Aubais erupted into a great cheer. The hero has slain the minotaur! The monster is banished for another year!
“What will that guy do now that he’s got him?” I asked, swirling the cold rosé in my glass and taking a long sip. It was crisp and fruity, like a burst of iced cherries on the tongue. “Tie him up?”
“My dear,” Lord said, clucking at me, “this is not one of your American rodeos.”
“You’re right,” I said, turning back to Lord. “This isn’t at all like an American rodeo.”
“No?” he asked, his eyebrow raised.
“Not at all,” I said, finishing my glass of wine. “It is so much better.”
Lord beamed with pleasure, his smile stretching from elfin ear to elfin ear. “Magnificently said, my dear,” he said, as if I’d passed some sort of test. “Simply magnificent.”
Later, after the run, when the bull was led back to the pasture, the crowd gathered at the festival grounds by the mayor’s office. Under a mass of tents, chickens were roasted and sausages grilled and served with salad and cheese. One side of the parking lot was set up with children’s rides and the other with a stage, where a band would play later that night. Alex and Nico ran off to shoot balloons with BB guns. After losing a few times, they consoled themselves with enormous cones of cotton candy, pink barbe à papa bigger than their heads.
Nikolai and I sat at a picnic table, taking it all in, watching the laughter and jokes, listening to the incomprehensible French. I was beginning to feel the weight of our decision to move to a small village. I couldn’t understand anything going on around me. I knew almost no one. I had no idea why people loved watching bulls run in the street and maul their boys. We were outsiders, strangers, people unaccustomed to the rites of the Fête d’Aubais. And yet I was strangely happy. We were doing this thing, however crazy it might be, together. I reached out for his hand, and he took mine. We exchanged a glance that said, We did it. I went to the tent and bought two more glasses of wine, feeling it best to follow Lord and Lulu’s suggestion: We should drink until the locals accepted us, or at least until we felt accepted. And then we would drink some more.
Soon the band arrived and started to play covers of American pop songs from the eighties, and the combination of something familiar with something foreign—songs of my childhood sung with a French accent—made me even happier. The makeshift dance floor was packed. Lulu and Lord danced; the woman from the boulangerie danced; Nico and a pack of village girls danced. I wanted to dance with Nikolai in this strange place, hold his hand under the impossible abundance of stars, to face my new life with laughter and an open heart. I finished my wine and grabbed Nikolai by the hand, pulling him toward the dance floor.
“Come on!” I said, smiling, hoping to entice him.
“I don’t dance,” he replied.
“So what?” I said. “Nobody cares here. Everyone is so sloshed they won’t even remember you tomorrow.”
Nikolai gave me a dark look that said no matter how much wine was consumed, he would go nowhere near that dance floor.
“But why not?” I asked, realizing that I sounded like Nico when she wanted candy. I was pleading. “Just one dance.”
“Dancing is for idiots.”
“Then be an idiot with me,” I said, and what I meant was this: Let’s let go of our disappointments and our problems and dance until we believe, just for a moment, that we’re in love again.
Excerpted from The Fortress: A Love Story by Danielle Trussoni. Copyright © 2016 by Danielle Trussoni. Dey Street, an imprint of William Morrow Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
Author photograph © Beowulf Sheehan.