A haunting fable of art, family, and fate from the author of the Outline trilogy.
A woman invites a famous artist to use her guesthouse in the remote coastal landscape where she lives with her family. Powerfully drawn to his paintings, she believes his vision might penetrate the mystery at the center of her life. But as a long, dry summer sets in, his provocative presence itself becomes an enigma—and disrupts the calm of her secluded household.
Second Place, Rachel Cusk’s electrifying new novel, is a study of female fate and male privilege, the geometries of human relationships, and the moral questions that animate our lives. It reminds us of art’s capacity to uplift—and to destroy.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Rachel Cusk’s spare, thoughtful, and brilliantly enigmatic novel explores relationships, creativity, and privilege. The book’s mysterious narrator—we know her only as M—lives with her husband, Tony, in a small house on an isolated coastal marsh. She invites an artist called L, whose work she adores, to stay in their guesthouse, hoping his presence will fulfill and inspire her. But when L brings a lady friend and M’s adult daughter drops in with her boyfriend, the small property fills up with people—and a looming sense of tension and disappointment. Cult favorite Cusk, whose breathtaking Outline trilogy we’re still thinking about, uses M’s fraught first-person narration to reveal just how frustrating people can be. Melancholic, sophisticated, and occasionally as cringey as an episode of The Office, Second Place sweeps us up in a drama of human awkwardness. Even as it feels less and less likely that L’s presence will give M what she was looking for, we were rapt to see what truths she might uncover about herself instead.
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.
Another Masterpiece by Rachel Cusk
A penetrating work of emotional realism.