'Tiger, Tiger' by Margaux Fragoso: The Incandescent Memoir of a Real-Life Lolita

From the first time she successfully “pretend[s] Peter’s penis is ice cream” on his 52nd birthday–a goal she has been

From the first time she successfully “pretend[s] Peter’s penis is ice cream” on his 52nd birthday–a goal she has been steeling herself to accomplish ever since recoiling the first time the matter came up, due to her belief it was tantamount to “licking pee”–Margaux exhibits an almost comical determination to “make it work” with Peter, for better or worse, and until death finally parts them, the trajectory is mostly a downward spiral. Every time Margaux’ birthday comes around, Peter becomes sadder and weaker, withdrawing further into the memory palace of his videotapes and photo albums of Reagan administration Margaux. Keenly aware of her expiration date, she invents a “sex goddess” alter ego named Nina–essentially a composite drawn from all the “sexy women” she has met hanging around the house Peter shares with his ex-girlfriend and a revolving cast of boarders, glamorous flirts who “despite their crappy lives … treated the world with overabundant affection.” Nina exists to bestow upon Peter an endless stream of sexual favors, in “exchange” for milkshakes, video rentals and reinforcing the myth of Margaux’ full complicity in their arrangement. And Peter labors (albeit halfheartedly) to reciprocate, inviting her to fantasize about boys her age and agreeing to shave his testicles so long as Margaux eradicates her own pubic hair. But it is only the engine of his motorcycle that ever brings her to orgasm.

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Eventually, the whole thing begins to disgust (even) Peter so much that he begs to call off their sexual relationship. Nevertheless, the pair remain irrevocably attached. He confesses his pedophilia to Margaux, admits he molested his daughters and even keeps the photos of other foster children and special friends on his walls and in his photo albums. But both of them know he has never indulged a full-blown affair with another victim, much less a 15-year “forbidden” romance. “What kept Peter from rejecting Margaux even as she grew into her twenties?” asks one of the more astute questions on the list of book-club discussion topics. Margaux was 11 when she and Peter read Lolita together, and it dawned upon her that she “was fast reaching the end of my nymphdom.” Still, Peter seemed more offended that “Lolita didn’t really love Humbert,” and in this realm Margaux could, it was obvious to both of them, outdo any nymphet.

Even as he deteriorates before her eyes–forswearing his dentures and his motorcycle–and starts to consume lethal quantities of Veterans Hospital-issued Xanax, Ms. Fragoso loves him and loves him and loves him, because the thought of stopping loving him is too painful to bear, as she recalls of the first time she ever harbored a malicious thought toward him, right after that first birthda
y blow job: “It had hurt me so much to think that for a moment I had wanted to kill him.” It is only by killing himself that Peter can save Ms. Fragoso from the mutilating weight of this unconditional love. The story ends abruptly there.

As numerous book blogs have noted, Tiger, Tiger arrives in a bull market for “tiger”-titled books, on the heels of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua’s best-selling despotic parenting manual, and alongside the novels The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht, and Tiger Hills, by Sarita Mandanna. It is largely irrelevant but perhaps worth noting that the extended rants and riffs on art, history, class mobility and manners delivered by Margaux’ otherwise absentee father, an overworked Puerto Rican immigrant–whose hectoring of Margaux is well-intentioned (if also often drink-addled and abusive)–reflect Ms. Chua’s pathological fear of generational decline. It seems miraculous that Ms. Fragoso somehow spared her parents the fate of joining them on their path toward mutually assured destruction. If her book sells even a small fraction of the copies sold by Ms. Chua’s, it stands to do future generations a far greater service.

editorial@observer.com

'Tiger, Tiger' by Margaux Fragoso: The Incandescent Memoir of a Real-Life Lolita