SECOND PLACE – Rachel Cusk

In January, I resolved to read the 2021 Booker Prize longlist.  The list was released last week, and I immediately put in my requests at the local library.  (That was another resolution – to use the library more.) Three of the books haven’t been released in the US yet or have limited distribution, which is a bummer, but five are currently in my house.  The shortlist will be announced on 9/14 and the winner will be announced on 11/3, so I have time.  Let’s do this.

I started Rachel Cusk’s Second Place (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2021) with high hopes, but this 180-page novel is about 160 pages too long.  Had it been any longer, it likely would have been a very rare DNF for me.  The opening where the narrator meets the devil on a train in France and watches as he sexual assaults a child and does nothing set the stage for something that wholly under-delivered, but I’m not surprised it was longlisted as it oozes a certain Booker type – the type where the book clearly thinks too highly of itself.

The novel is narrated by a woman known only as M.  She’s middle-aged, whiny, and insufferable.  She addresses the novel to “Jeffers,” but the reader is never made privy to who Jeffers is.  He undoubtedly represents a very open nod to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir of the time D.H. Lawrence stayed with her for a bit.  M’s second husband, Tony, is also a caricature of Luhan’s Native American husband, Tony.   The reason for a fictional retelling of Luhan’s memoir is a mystery to me, and I do not think it was successful.

The novel focuses on M’s obsession with the eccentric and difficult artist, L, as well as her desire to matter, to be seen.  She’s an author, but little is said of her books.  She’s a mother and a wife, but seemingly not very good at either.  Describing her dark-skinned husband as “more of an ugly than a good-looking man” and having difficulty communicating with him, M is primed for an obsession with an artist that could destroy her marriage.

She invites L to come stay with her and Tony at the “second place,” another home on their property set up for guests.  She thinks it would be good for his artistic creativity, and he eventually agrees.  But the man proves to be far less than the art that spoke so surely to her – he is a horrible, unkind man – and his interactions with M are far from the beautiful, seductive, passionate images M had visualized.

Cusk can clearly write, and there are some quite lovely passages and ideas in the work.  The jealousy directed at M’s daughter over the fear of completely disappearing and being replaced by a younger version of herself is a constant theme, humming as an undercurrent beneath the obsession with L, and represents some of the best writing of the short novel.  But there are far more misses than hits.

This is a hard pass for me and that’s a line I rarely draw.  Next.

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