- Expected May 4, 2021
On a sun-soaked Parisian street, M, a mother on the brink of rebellion, wanders into a famous artist’s gallery show. The artist’s paintings speak—quite literally—to her, promising a liberation usually reserved for men. She returns to the coastal home she shares with her husband, but the unsettling impression of the art, and the evasive artist, remains. So she writes, inviting him to stay in their second place, a modest cottage salvaged from the land.
When historical catastrophe upends daily life, M’s daughter returns to the marsh, along with her prim, privileged boyfriend. The painter arrives, too, accompanied by a lithe, cosmopolitan lover. Resigned to the perilous indoors, fissures form within the strange group. The painter’s quietly demonic presence wreaks havoc with M, plunging her into existential disarray. As secrets, alliances and private desires come to light, she is forced to choose between her deepest impulses: to comply or to rebel completely.
Like her acclaimed Outline trilogy, Rachel Cusk’s Second Place transcends its form. Inspired by Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir of the writer D. H. Lawrence’s fraught visit to her communal property, the novel hovers between past and present, Gothic and contemporary, fable and truth—continuing to haunt us long after we’ve looked away.
Cusk's intelligent, sparkling return (after Kudos) centers on a woman in crisis. The narrator, M, is a writer living on an isolated coastal marsh with her second husband, Tony. They have built a guest cabin on their property, which they call the "second place." Through a mutual friend, M invites a painter, L, to stay in the cabin. L's art deeply affected M 15 years earlier when she was a young mother and was struck by the work's "freedom" and how it was "elementally and unrepentingly male down to the last brushstroke." To her surprise, L accepts, before canceling. M's daughter, Justine, and her new boyfriend, Kurt, who reminds M of her first husband, move into the cabin just before L shows up with a gorgeous young woman named Brett. The characters enter an uneasy equilibrium on the marsh as allusions of a global financial disaster fill in the backdrop. L paints portraits of everyone except M which devastates her. Cusk expertly handles the logistics of the crowded setting, building tension as the characters form unexpected, temporary alliances Kurt and L, Brett and Justine and M's isolation increases. There is the erudition of the author's Outline trilogy here, but with a tightly contained dramatic narrative. It's a novel that feels timeless, while dealing with ferocious modern questions.