Tessa Fontaine’s debut novel takes readers to an isolated community with dark secrets

FREE OF FEAR: Tessa Fontaine's debut novel, The Red Grove, asks the question: What would life be like for women if they never had to worry about violence? Photo by Thomas Calder

“This really weird thing happened,” says author Tessa Fontaine, in discussing her forthcoming debut novel, The Red Grove.

It was February 2022, the Asheville-based writer continues, and she was experiencing seizures amid a difficult childbirth. Several hours after her daughter was born, the new mother was still struggling. Yet, somehow, the latest draft of her book seeped into her consciousness.

“I was, like, punched in the head with this thought: I had completely misunderstood the mother character up until this point,” Fontaine recalls.

In retelling her experience, the author is quick to laugh at her own observation. “I mean, I’d been a mother for maybe like six hours at this point, and I’m already like, ‘No one understands how hard we’re trying!’”

Still, that window helped reshape a key relationship within the story she’d been working on for several years, which ultimately became The Red Grove, a coming-of-age tale set in the late 1990s with elements of mystery, horror and suspense. At its center, the novel is about a woman gone missing and her teenage daughter’s quest to find her. The pair, along with 200-plus other women, live in Red Grove, an isolated, intentional community in Northern California that is shrouded in secrets.

Back in the delivery room and still recovering from labor, Fontaine understood that she needed to complicate Gloria, the mother character. In earlier drafts, the author explains, Gloria had been presented as a villain with little nuance.

“She made mistakes, but she was also trying,” Fontaine says of her character. “Those things are simultaneously true for most people and parents. … That really unlocked a lot for me in thinking through a very flawed mother.”

On Tuesday, May 14, at 7 p.m., Fontaine will celebrate her book’s publication with a launch party at rEvolve Mercantile, 697 Haywood Road. The event, which is co-hosted by Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe and Punch Bucket Lit, will include a conversation between the author and fellow local writer Heather Newton. The discussion will touch on many of the book’s themes of brutality, love, mythology and the inevitable shortcomings of the most well-intended plans.

In the absence of violence 

Similar to her 2018 memoir, The Electric Woman, Fontaine’s debut novel confronts death head-on. But whereas her memoir explored her mother’s slow and limited recovery following a stroke (in tandem with the author’s own brief stint as a member of a traveling sideshow), The Red Grove asks the question: What would life be like for women if they never had to worry about violence?

The question, notes Fontaine, arose in the midst of the 2016 election, when an audio recording of then-candidate Donald Trump was released, in which the future president boasted about grabbing women by their genitals.

The subsequent national discussion around sexual harassment and assault led the writer to survey female colleagues and friends, asking them questions such as: “What do you think would be different in your life if you never were afraid of violence — specifically male violence?”

Fontaine says the responses were both horrifying and fascinating.

Some participants revealed detailed experiences, such as one woman’s account of being trapped in an elevator for two hours while she was assaulted and raped. Others discussed their need to carry weapons out of constant fear for their safety. Meanwhile, a few insisted they did not let men impact how they lived their lives.

The array of answers helped Fontaine imagine the types of women who might seek refuge in a place like Red Grove, a community steeped in traditions and with an almost religious belief in the perceived natural powers within the forest that surrounds the unincorporated town.

In the process of populating her book, Fontaine also began to explore and develop the unintended consequences such a community would face, both among its residents as well as with the outside world.

As she writes early on in the novel, “A number of newspapers had written about the Red Grove over the years, including a slanderous article written by an undercover reporter in 1977 who’d posed as a woman seeking asylum and then described them as a lesbian cult, blaming them for America’s skyrocketing divorce rate. There was often speculation about whether they were a coven of witches.”

Noble intentions

What’s brilliant and compelling throughout The Red Grove is the contrast between Gloria and her 16-year-old daughter, Luce. Whereas Gloria arrives in Red Grove with deep reservations and ongoing skepticism, Luce is introduced to readers as the community’s heir apparent, favored to take over the leadership role in the not-too-distant future.

Early in the story, Fontaine establishes the philosophical and emotional differences between the pair, creating a tension that threads its way through the entire narrative — especially once Luce is on her own and trying to unravel the mystery of her mother’s disappearance.

The outside world, void of the perceived protections that Red Grove promises, is seen by its residents as a madhouse, replete with endless dangers that are reinforced by the narratives and hearsay shared within the community.

“The going theory was that each person unknowingly interacted with five serial killers in their lifetime,” Luce contemplates at one point in the story. “Five! They were everywhere.”

Meanwhile, through Gloria, Fontaine gets at one of the community’s core contradictions, as well as one of the novel’s most compelling themes: the relationship between safety and freedom. “[T]he longer they lived here,” she writes in an early passage of The Red Grove, “the more Gloria realized that any isolated community, no matter how noble its intentions, restricted you.”

Despite Gloria’s physical absence in much of the novel’s present-day story, her own past — including what drove her to relocate her family to Red Grove — is slowly revealed throughout the book. It’s this evolving narrative that propels readers forward in ways reminiscent of a thriller.

But the story’s engine is Luce. And it is her growth that keeps readers emotionally invested — a feature that is often missing in the characters of more traditional mystery novels.

Fontaine’s mastery in blending the literary with aspects of genre fiction offers a compelling and rewarding read, where moments of humor bleed into horror. Meanwhile, the external world never overshadows her characters’ interior lives.

One of the novel’s most poignant scenes arrives within the first 100 pages and illustrates Fontaine’s talent as a writer. Her lyrical style lures readers into darker corners that they might otherwise avoid; yet, once there, they discover the devastating joy of being human.

“People told Gloria that the day her first child was born would be the most magical of her life. You’ll fall madly in love, everyone said. You’ll witness a miracle. You’ll meet your little soulmate,” she writes.

“Nobody had told her that to give birth was to be smashed up against death, pressed all the way against a quickly cracking window to the other side. … And then, after forty hours, at midnight exactly, this weirdly pink creature came out of her with a shrieking cry and wide, dark eyes that stayed open for a strangely long time, the doctor said, so alert for a newborn, so awake. And her hands, as small as a walnut, flexing open and closed on Gloria’s breast like a tiny cat. She named her Luce, light, an aspirational name for what she thought the baby might bring to her life. And then she waited for the love that everyone said would flood her.”


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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