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Second Place

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From the author of the Outline trilogy, a fable of human destiny and decline, enacted in a closed system of intimate, fractured relationships.

A woman invites a famed artist to visit the remote coastal region where she lives, in the belief that his vision will penetrate the mystery of her life and landscape. His provocative presence provides the frame for a study of female fate and male privilege, of the geometries of human relationships, and of the struggle to live morally in the intersecting spaces of our internal and external worlds.

With its examination of the possibility that art can both save and destroy us, Rachel Cusk's Second Place is deeply affirming of the human soul, while grappling with its darkest demons.

186 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2021

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About the author

Rachel Cusk

50 books3,482 followers
Rachel Cusk was born in Canada, and spent some of her childhood in Los Angeles, before her family returned to England, in 1974, when Cusk was 8 years old. She read English at New College, Oxford.

Cusk is the Whitbread Award–winning author of two memoirs, including The Last Supper, and seven novels, including Arlington Park, Saving Agnes, The Temporary, The Country Life, and The Lucky Ones.

She has won and been shortlisted for numerous prizes: her most recent novel, Outline (2014), was shortlisted for the Folio Prize, the Goldsmith's Prize and the Bailey's prize, and longlisted for Canada's Giller Prize. In 2003, Rachel Cusk was nominated by Granta magazine as one of 20 'Best of Young British Novelists'

She lives in Brighton, England.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,419 reviews
Profile Image for Regina.
1,136 reviews3,331 followers
July 28, 2021
I feel like Rachel Cusk and everyone who has already read and reviewed her latest novel, Second Place, is smarter than me. By a lot. Like they’re all in Mensa, and I’m over here eating paste in the corner.

In fact, I have to admit I’d never even heard of Cusk before - even though she’s clearly a literary genius. Can I tell you why I chose to pick this book up then? No. Can I tell you if I’m glad I did? Yes.

Second Place is as literary as modern literary fiction can get. There could easily be an entire university course on the novel itself, demanding students of the written word unpack and interpret every potential meaning behind the title and story.

And what is the story? A middle aged woman invites a painter to stay in her guesthouse with the hope he’ll use her as the subject of one of his masterpieces. When does it take place? No idea - could be 1921, could be 2021. Where does it take place? Also no idea - could be Europe, could be America.

What I do know is that I was captivated by the audiobook from start to finish. Kate Fleetwood’s moody narration enhanced the heady atmosphere, transporting me to a time and place I’m too dumb to fully understand but smart enough to appreciate.

My thanks to the author and Macmillan Audio for my gifted advance listeners copy via NetGalley. Second Place is now available.

Blog: www.confettibookshelf.com
Profile Image for Robin.
493 reviews2,731 followers
September 3, 2021
Rachel Cusk, as it turns out, is a bit of an acrobat. More specifically, she's a tightrope walker, a writer who balances on the very, very fine line between brilliance and pretentiousness. It takes the most minute, feathery breeze to waft her in either direction.

Waft to the right, and she's saying brilliant things like:

Fear is a habit like any other, and habits kill what is essential in ourselves.

Change is also loss, and in that sense a parent can lose a child every day, until you realise that you’d better stop predicting what they’re going to become and concentrate on what is right in front of you.

Waft to the left, though:

The truth lies not in any claim to reality, but in the place where what is real moves beyond our interpretation of it. True art means seeking to capture the unreal.

I have read this sentence over and over, and it still doesn't make any sense. That happened for me a lot in the reading of this brief novella.

Damn it. This is one of those reviews that is the hardest to write, because I have no desire to diminish something artful and thought provoking - and Cusk does provoke thought, especially in regards to motherhood and womanhood. However, lines like the one above (and many others like it) create an atmosphere of suffocating introspection, causing (for me, at least) more wafts to the left than to the right.

It all starts quite provocatively. Using a formal, epistolary tone, our navel-gazing protagonist, "M", addresses "Jeffers", telling him about the time she saw the devil on the train. The tone made me think of something slightly antique, like Robert Louis Stevenson, or even Bram Stoker. I liked that. The almost immediate tension she created promised delicious things. Unfortunately, I never quite came to understand the devil on the train part - what it meant, or how it factored into the rest of the story.

Our narrator then tells us about when, one night in Paris, she happens upon the paintings of "L". The paintings have a profound effect on her. Later, she invites "L" to stay at the property she lives on with her wise, mountainous husband Tony, on an unnamed marsh land, in a small cottage they call the Second Place.

"L", who shows up with someone less than half his age, is abusive and beastly, and our self-obsessed protagonist spends her time thinking about him and pining for his attention. She also moves through some interesting feelings about her daughter Justine, how it is to be a mother, how to show love, and how to be a woman.

Some of this is beautifully expressed, as I mentioned before. But I had a hard time spending so much time with "M", who seems like a person who has never so much as cracked a smile, and who analyzes with intensity every little tiny thing, sucking the very life out of it. I almost couldn't blame "L" for his nasty contempt.

The story is told in a dream-like way. It's unclear where or when this is set, although it feels like it could possibly be taking place during a pandemic. And people have the weirdest interactions. For example:

"You know, I've never wanted to be whole or complete."

"Why not?" I said.

"I always imagined it was like being swallowed," he said.

"Perhaps it's you that does the swallowing," I replied.

"I haven't swallowed anything," he said calmly. "Just taken a few bites here and there. No, I don't want to be completed. I prefer to try outrunning whatever's after me. I prefer to stay out, like kids on a summer evening stay out, and won't come in when they're called. I don't want to go to it. But it means that all my memories are outside me."

Sorry, but who talks like this? It's beautifully written, to be sure, but it means nothing to me. What does he mean, being whole is like being swallowed? What does it mean to have all your memories outside yourself?

I understood more at the end, when it is revealed that the novel is based on an actual historical account of an artist coming to stay on a benefactor's property. That knowledge helped and guided me somewhat, though I can't say it saved the day.

Despite my complaints and failure to fully connect with Second Place, I have to applaud Ms. Cusk for what she has done here - it takes guts to walk the tightrope.
Profile Image for Jaidee.
605 reviews1,205 followers
June 29, 2022
5 "murky, malevolent, minor, malignant" stars !!

Tie -The Bronze Award Read of 2021 (third favorite read)

Thank you to Netgalley ; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux and most of all Ms. Cusk for an e-copy of this book that is to be released May 2021. I am providing an honest review.

Some of you know that Ms. Cusk's Outline Trilogy is one of my most treasured reads of the past few years. She wrote a series of books of such carefully constructed wisdoms and observations that were at times pristine, other times profound and sometimes earth shatteringly funny. Despite some very sad truths there is always a quality of light that permeates and purifies.

In this book Ms. Cusk explores the shadow (s). Ms. Cusk has lost her distance, her logical faculties and becomes mired in the emotions as well as the everyday evils of the artist, the privileged, the lost and the malevolence and selfishness of self-centered delusions.

How many of us can look the devil in the face ? Very few of us will. We will avoid him. We will pretend he is not there. We excuse him on the grounds of past traumata, we turn the mirror slightly so that we see the reflection of those we loathe or those we yearn for rather than see the devil that has infiltrated our own beings and the cruelties we inflict on all that we meet.

This is a dark look at the narcissism of artists, mothers, writers, children and lovers. A battle of wills couched in desire, disgust and competition. The villainy of victimhood, the tyranny of oppression all hidden behind false noble aspirations rather than the true goal of victory and annihilation.

This is a domestic dark psychodrama of the highest caliber.

Ms. Cusk you fuckin slay me !

Profile Image for Adam Dalva.
Author 8 books1,642 followers
January 28, 2021
I’m very happy to report that this upcoming novel, is fun and weird, with lots of thinking about painting and power structures, and lots of plotting beneath the surface, and a surprising Iris Murdoch vibe, and paragraphs as good as anyone.

It's great - really great
Profile Image for Marchpane.
296 reviews2,169 followers
July 26, 2021
Longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize

‘Nothing evil ever dies. Especially not of remorse.’

Second Place is a very strange little novel. To describe the premise or plot gives very little idea of its unnerving effect. ‘A famous artist comes to stay’ tells you everything and nothing.

The title has a dual meaning. It refers to the narrator M.’s guest house on her isolated rural property—‘our second place’—where the artist L. is invited to live. But it also means subordination: to come in second place is to be second best, inferior. This feeling is something M. struggles with throughout.

M. is highly strung, anxious, perhaps even narcissistic, and her narration wavers between philosophy and aggressive self-psychoanalysis. Upon arrival, L. falls far short of expectations. The two are instantly at odds, a pair of magnetic poles that can’t help but repel one another.

This novel is an exercise in tone, tension, and a creeping menace that holds throughout but doesn’t deliver any hammer blows. It takes time to get to know M. and to understand where she is coming from; as you do, her pronouncements about identity, freedom, and creative endeavour take on greater potency.

The enduring image of the book for me is that of the second place’s floor-to-ceiling windows: a cold, glassy partition—a portal that allows observation but not participation. Similarly, Second Place is intellectually engaging rather than immersive. 4 stars.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,823 reviews1,387 followers
October 5, 2021
Now re-read following its deserved longlisting for the 2021 Booker Prize.

This remains in my view the most literary and involved but also the most demanding book on the longlist - one I thoroughly enjoyed but would hesitate to recommend to many others.

….when we were building the second place, and had come to start calling it that in a way I knew would never change if we carried on doing it much longer, I said to him that ‘second place’ pretty much summed up how I felt about myself and my life – that it had been a near miss, requiring just as much effort as victory but with that victory always and forever somehow denied me, by a force that I could only describe as the force of pre-eminence. I could never win, and the reason I couldn’t seemed to lie within certain infallible laws of destiny that I was powerless – as the woman I was – to overcome. I ought to have accepted it at the beginning, and spared myself the effort! Tony listened to me, and I could tell he was slightly surprised by what I was saying, and that he was thinking about why he was, and after a long time he said:
‘For me it doesn’t mean that. It means parallel world. Alternative reality.’
Well, Jeffers, I laughed heartily to myself at this perfect example of the paradox that is Tony and me!

Rachel Cusk’s latest novel is partly inspired by “Lorenzo in Taos” – the American art patron Mable Dodge Luhan’s account of a rather fraught (on both sides) visit to her New Mexican pueblo-based literary colony by DH Lawrence and his wife in 1922.

Any true appreciation of this novel involves some engagement with that earlier book.

Paul’s evolving review here is capturing - with my assistance - a very large number of links between the two books (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) which cover many (but by no means all -there are many other influences) of the otherwise apparent oddities or slightly out of place images and actions in this novel.

This novel is narrated as a first person recollection by “M” to an unknown (to us) recipient – Jeffers. The book starts with M describing a rather series of events in Paris when she was in her first marriage – events which occur immediately prior to a train journey where she meets the Devil with unspecified but catastrophic consequences for her life. After an evening spent flirting unsuccessfully with a famous writer, she comes across a gallery exhibiting paintings by an artist L which, particularly the landscapes (as well as a portrait of an unknown woman), somehow speak to her at a profound level.

This part seems to link strongly with an incident in Transit (https://www.vice.com/en/article/xdw3d...) featuring the painter Marsden Hartley.

15 years later M is living with her easy-going second husband Tony in a property on a coastal marsh where they have discovered and renovated a cottage (the eponymous second home) which they use as a place for visiting artists to work. The marsh has the same effect on M as L’s landscapes and she writes to the now extremely successful L (via a mutual acquaintance) inviting him to stay with them. Initially he demurs and stays with some of his wealthy patrons – but an unspecified catastrophe (which both leads to an asset price collapse – including L’s own property and his paintings – and travel restrictions) leads him to accept.

Most of the book tells of L’s stay – which decidedly does not go to M’s plans. She seems convinced first of all that L will form a bond with her (and perhaps see her as a muse if not lover) and, more so, that the marsh landscape will inspire his work, and his painting somehow express what the marshland means to M.

In practice this aim is frustrated both by: L’s aloof and unfeeling and rather exaggerated character - with an attitude to m which seems equal parts pity, contempt and dismissal); and by the presence of others – L comes with a young British companion in tow, the preposterously accomplished (for her age) Brett, and the circumstances lead to M’s adult daughter Justine and her boyfriend Kurt (a rather absurdly confident character who one day decides to knock up a fantasy novel unwittingly plagiarised from one he has read) to stay also. From then on the book examines the dynamics between the group – but always filtered through M’s obsession with her original intentions for L’s visit.

The themes explored by Cusk through M are many and include but are far from limited to :

Motherhood and marriage (and ideas in both of identity, sacrifice, obliteration, communication, evolution of roles and the loss that comes with it, freedom and obligation)l

Privilege (in many forms – sex, age, wealth and status)

Art (its relationship to reality, the workings of the art world, how we view art and how it can both reflect, magnify and alter our thoughts, the necessary character to be a successful artist and its implications for other aspects of the artists life and relationships

Because this is partly a story of will, and of the consequences of exerting it, you will notice, Jeffers, that everything I determined to happen happened, but not as I wanted it! This is the difference, I suppose, between an artist and an ordinary person: the artist can create outside himself the perfect replica of his own intentions. The rest of us just create a mess, or something hopelessly wooden, no matter how brilliantly we imagined it. That’s not to say that we don’t all of us have some compartment in which we too are able to achieve ourselves instinctively, to leap without looking, but the bringing of things into permanent existence is an achievement of a different order. The closest most people come to it is in having a child. And nowhere are our mistakes and limitations more plainly written than there!

As one would expect with Cusk – this is a deep and quotable book, one which teeters somewhere – like much of her writing - on just the right side of the boundary of genius and pretentiousness, but one which occasionally trespasses the boundary as well as making the occasional excursion to the territory of farce.

One of my Goodreads friends has made the criticism of the author's work that some of her more profound and widely quoted sentences have equal weight if the nouns are reversed - so I was amused to see

One afternoon I came upon him standing by the prow of the landlocked boat, just as he had been the day of our very first conversation, and this coincidence led me to exclaim, somewhat absurdly: ‘So much has changed, and yet nothing has!’ When of course, Jeffers, it would have been as true – and as meaningless – to say that nothing had changed and yet so much had.

It also has (to quote an early Hilary Mantel view of Cusk’s work) her “bracing mix of scorn and compassion” – in fact M says something similar of L’s work

part of L’s greatness lay in his ability to be right about the things that he saw, and what confounded me was how, at the plane of living, this rightness could be so discordant and cruel

And this of course both of these elements (one I think accidental but one very deliberate) lead to another element of Cusk’s writing – its use of auto-fiction, its idea of telling a story ostensibly about others but at least partly (if not largely) about the story teller – something which is true of Cusk’s narrators (most famously in her annihilated perspective of the Outline/Transit/Kudos trilogy) but also of Cusk herself.

Fans of Cusk’s autofictional approach will not be disappointed here - and there are lots of these references.

One, I think, of the key themes of the book is how male artists get away with being self-absorbed, abrasive and arrogant in a way never possible for a woman (and of female complicity in this). One might say how does Ms Cusk get pilloried on MumsNet while Mr. Self appears on Shooting Stars

The very marshland setting of the novel is of course a nod to Rachel Cusk and her second husband’s own recently sold stunning property in the North Norfolk saltmarsh village of Stiffkey and I was of course reminded of various snarky tweets by literary commentators (for example John Self) that I saw when that house was put on the market last year by this observation by L

‘Who pays for all this?’ he asked. ‘The house and the land belong to Tony. I have some money of my own.’ ‘I can’t imagine your little books make all that much.’

And the switch of landscape from teh Mexican pueblo in "Lorenzo in Taos" to Cusk's own marsh, an area I know very well with its tides and shifting currents and ever changing, ever flowing landscape is brilliantly justified by this quote from the first book

"It is terribly difficult for me to explain these things to you. Jeffers, these tides and currents that compromise the relationships between people - the fluid come and do that constitute so different a reality from the solid, staring fixed appearance of faces"

The character of L (and the idea of changing the real life Lawrence - one of Cusk's favourite authors due to the brutal honesty of his writing) to a painter still named "L" seems like a deliberate nod to Cusk's favourite painter Lovis Corinth and many of the ideas in the book are similar to those in this 2011 short story (https://www.theguardian.com/books/201...) and some are almost directly lifted from this lecture (https://vanderleeuwlezing.nl/sites/de...).

Fans of Cusk will also know that all her books feature a dog – even though she herself has never owned one (and is allergic to them) and her rather deliciously there is a whole section around a non-dog used to summarise M’s troubled and complex relationship to her husband and daughter.

Justine often asked me why Tony and I didn’t get a dog, since our life was ideally suited to having one and since she knew Tony had always had dogs before he met me. …. The truth was, Jeffers, I feared that if Tony got a dog, it would become the centre of his attention, and he would give it friendship and affection that should have come to me. I was in a sense in competition with this theoretical pet, many of whose characteristics – loyalty, devotion, obedience – I believed I already demonstrated ……….. I would say that this non-dog had come to stand for the concept of security, …. I mention this because it illustrates how in matters of being and becoming, an object can remain itself even at the mercy of conflicting perspectives. The non-dog represented the necessity for trusting and finding security in human beings: I preferred it that way, but Tony and Justine only had to get a sniff of that proposition to take fright. Yet the non-dog was a fact, at least for Tony and for me, and we were able to agree on it, even while it meant different things to each of us. The fact represented the boundary or separation between us, and between any two people, that it is forbidden to cross. …. all I could do was suspect, from my side of the boundary, that the two chief recipients of my love – Tony and Justine – both privately yearned for something mute and uncritical to love them instead.

My thanks to Faber for an ARC via NetGalley.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews606 followers
January 30, 2021
“Why do we live so painfully in our fictions? Why do we suffer so, from the things we ourselves have invented? Do you understand it, Jeffers? I have wanted to be free my whole life and I haven’t managed to liberate my smallest toe”.

M, middle aged, is married to second husband, Tony.
She is writing her friend, Jeffers......telling him about a letter she wrote to another ( artist) friend named L.

M tells Jeffers that the cottage she and Tony owned was once “sordid and quite sad”.
“We quickly realized it would have to be done over to rid it of that awful human type of sadness”.
They took the entire cottage down and rebuilt back up again, with Tony giving directions”.

M invited L to come stay in ‘Second Place’. The reader will untangle M’s purposes, and L’’s purposes ...for this visit.
Including, L brings along a young British woman named Brett.
Add to this visit M’s daughter and daughter’s boyfriend.

‘Second Place’... is both literally and figuratively
The guest house itself, is the second place on the property. ‘Second’, also, symbolically relates to M’s life.

M tells Jeffers he has never met Tony, but believes they would get along.
The first thing that M tells Jeffers about her husband is that he is practical, as Jeffers himself is.
The next thing M says about Tony, is that he is not bourgeois.....
“not at all neglectful in the house that the very souls of the most bourgeois men are neglectful. He doesn’t show the weakness of neglect, and nor does he need to neglect something in order to have power over it. He does have a number of Certainties, though, which come from his particular knowledge and position and which can be very useful and reassuring until you find yourself a posing one of them! I have never met another human being who is so little burdened by shame as Tony and so little inclined to make others feel ashamed of themselves. He doesn’t comment and he doesn’t criticize and this puts him in an ocean of silence compared to most people”.

It doesn’t take long to know ... that L is very different type of man than her husband, Tony.
M is struggling between reality and fantasy.

“Second Place” is a short novel.... but one that caused me to pause often ... pay close attention to all that wasn’t being said as much as what was.
M feels somewhere invisible and feels as though she’s been criticized her entire life.
She picked a husband that gave her a sense of security— yet was screaming inside for freedom and more creative expression.

It felt as though M was almost justifying her marriage, her second marriage in her letter to Jeffers.
“Our relationship had plenty of openness, but it posed certain difficulties too, natural challenges that had to be surmounted: bridges had to be built and tunnels board, to get across to one another out of what was pre-formed. The second place was one such bridge, and Tony’s silence ran undisputed beneath it like a river”.

“One night, when Tony and I were going to bed, I flew at him in a rage and said all kinds of terrible things, about how lonely and washed up I felt, about how he never gave me any real attention of the kind that makes a woman feel like a woman and just expected me to sort I’ve gave birth to myself all the time, like Venus out of a seashell. As if I knew anything about what makes a woman feel like a woman!”

Soon after, M’s outburst to Tony she feels guilty. She feels rotten for saying those terrible things and knows he has never done anything to hurt her.
M knows that she married a stable man— she also knows the there are differences between the artist L was and her more ordinary kind husband.
M valued the security from Tony...but craved freedom and artistic fantastical electricity.

We meet M’s daughter, Justine and her boyfriend, Kurt. They come for a visit and move into the main house.
At the same time, M’s artistic/ painter friend, L, the painter she met years ago while in Paris during her first marriage, comes to stay in the guest house.
M had a long interest in L— call it an obsession or artistic infatuation.
She had a particular rapport with his work: his paintings of darkness with a tad of color. .. as she did ‘him’.

M was still writing Jeffers....
“One at the difficulties, Jeffers, in telling what happened is that the telling comes after the fact. This might sound so obvious as to be imbecilic, but I often think there’s just as much to be said about what you ‘thought’ would happen as about what actually did”.

Things didn’t go as planned ....
It’s an interesting ‘group’ visit....
with M’s inner voice examining herself, her marriage, motherhood, compromises, and disappointments....
but....nonetheless...M has a type of transformational shift. She came to see through the illusion of personal feelings.
“I hope I have become, or am becoming, a clear channel”.

“The truth lies not in any claim to reality, but in the place where what is real moves beyond our interpretation of it. True art means seeking to capture the unreal. Do you think so, Jeffers?”

Jeffers, by the way was a poet — and a friend of D.H. Lawrence.
“Second Place” was inspired by real set of circumstances.

Rachel’s writing is speculative...pensive...
always ‘thought provoking’....leaving me with many of my own thoughts to ponder.
I love Rachel Cusk’s work.

Thank you Netgalley, Farrar, Straus, and Giroix

Profile Image for Orsodimondo.
2,194 reviews1,816 followers
May 23, 2023

Il bagno dipinto da D.H. Lawrence nella casa di Mabel Dodge Luhan in New Mexico.

Se si trattasse di un film, lo definiremmo un remake.
Perché a monte c’è un libro di memorie, Lorenzo a Taos, scritto nel 1932 dalla ricca e mondana bohemienne Mabel Dodge Luhan che raccontava il caotico soggiorno di D.H. Lawrence nella sua colonia di artisti in New Mexico: lo scrittore inglese si rivelò presenza devastante che fin�� quasi con l’annientare la sua padrona di casa.

La casa di Rachel Cusk sulla costa inglese (Norfolk) che ha recentemente venduto per due milioni e mezzo di sterline.

Ciò detto, questa premessa ha per me davvero poca importanza: perché il breve romanzo della Cusk - il primo dopo la trilogia che certa critica letteraria ha accusato di voler distruggere la forma romanzo – vive a se stante.
E come tale io l’ho goduto, ritrovando la sua consueta compostezza stilistica, costruita in modo perfetto e minuzioso, con equilibrio, quasi fosse una partitura musicale. Una scrittura che definirei vitrea, che offre una sensazione specchiante a doppio senso: da una parte riflette il lettore, ma dall’altra in qualche modo rivela la presenza sorniona della creatrice.
Una scrittura, e un registro, che altri definiranno sofiscati (ergo, snob), manierati, freddi, monotoni. Altri, non io.

Il laghetto naturale dove fare il bagno.

M – così si chiama l’io narrante, come Mabel si chiamava la Dodge Luhan fonte d’ispirazione e partenza – scopre in un viaggio a Parigi il pittore L: i suoi quadri la conquistano, in essi si riconosce – e si sa che sensazione miracolosa sia il riconoscimento del proprio sé in qualcosa o qualcuno - se ne innamora, e capisce che deve in tutti i modi averlo ospite a casa sua.
E qui direi che si nasconde – mica tanto bene – una forma di bisogno di M di essere, se non riamata, almeno ammirata, apprezzata da L, riconosciuta sia come donna che come scrittrice (sì, M scrive e pubblica, ma L, che è un perfidone, definisce le sue opere “librettini”). Un bisogno d’attenzione che giocherà un ruolo importante.

Lo studio di Rachel Cusk, progettato da Ecospace.

Faccio un passo indietro per tornare alla residenza dove M alloggia gli artisti ospiti. È una casa sulla costa immersa in una palude che si confonde con l’oceano. Una palude d’acqua salata, si suppone. Paesaggio che toglie il fiato e che il gioco della luce solare rende incantevole per gran parte del giorno. Luogo perfetto per un pittore.
L’ospite è alloggiato in una dependance separata dalla casa padronale da un ampio prato: questa è la seconda casa indicata dal titolo.

Un’altra stanza della casa.

E qui – almeno a mio avviso – Cusk si dimostra ancora una volta interessata (ossessionata?) da casa, residenza, costruzione: il secondo volume della citata trilogia ruota tutto attorno a un complesso lavoro di ristrutturazione di un appartamento. Qui, la geografia della proprietà, i lavori idraulici che il marito di M porta avanti nella proprietà per poter irrigare al meglio tutto il frutteto, la descrizione delle due costruzioni, sono parte importante del racconto.
Aggiungerei a questa attenzione/ossessione anche la splendida dimora personale che la Cusk ha recentemente deciso di mettere sul mercato (e credo già venduto).

Il privé

Quando L finalmente si materializza – finalmente, perché non dimentichiamo che L è perfido, e dunque la mena: sì vengo, grazie scusa ma non subito, prima vado in Brasile, poi vado, poi, e infine, arrivo! – quando L si presenta, non in traghetto, né in battello, ma su un aereo privato di proprietà dello stesso uomo alla cloche, che ha appena acquistato una collezione di suoi quadri – M rimane senza parole vedendolo accompagnato da una bella elegante ragazza, Brett, della quale L non aveva affatto preannunciato la presenza.
E qui per M si apre un doppio ordine di problemi: Brett è automaticamente un intralcio nel suo rapporto con L, che M vorrebbe si sviluppasse e avviluppasse (ricordiamoci che M si aspetta attenzioni e attestati d’ammirazione); ma Brett è anche una sfida alla sua femminilità perché è più bella, più elegante, più spigliata. E presto si rivela capace di conquistare la simpatia e l’ammirazione della figlia: Justine, la figlia 21enne di M, rimane subito affascinata dalla ragazza venuta con L. Che proprio ragazza non è perché ne ha trentadue, ma se li porta da dio.
Alla beffa s’aggiunge l’affronto: L fa di tutto per non “riconoscere” M, non c’è l’ombra di ammirazione nel modo in cui la tratta. È interessato e disposto a ritrarre tutti, Tony, il marito di M, oppure Justine, figlia di M da un precedente matrimonio, o anche l’amico della figlia, Kurt. Tutti, ma non M: che protesta, vuole essere lei la sua modella preferita e rimane sorpresa e offesa quando L le dice che non riesce “a vederla”.

Gli scaffali in legno di betulla.

Nella trilogia era privilegiato l’ascolto: la protagonista scrittrice andava in giro per il mondo a insegnare scrittura creativa, a fare convegni e conferenze e presentazioni, e intorno a lei la gente parlava e parlava, monologhi che lei ascoltava senza commentarli al lettore. Qui, invece, l’io narrante è ben presente, quasi prepotente, parla e commenta, ha forza, anche nell’esporre i suoi dubbi, le sue paure, la sua sofferenza.
Qui si direbbe che il senso privilegiato non sia l’udito ma la vista: la capacità cardine non è tanto sapere ascoltare, quando sapere guardare. E, quindi, vedere. La pittura, l’immagine raffigurata non ha bisogno di un prima e di un dopo, non ha bisogno di un’impalcatura di parole a sostenerla ed è in grado di attraversare lo specchio e rivelarci anche il lato più nascosto del sé.

La cucina

A questo punto si potrebbe anche avere la sensazione di trovarsi di fronte a una commedia sociale sui rischi dell’ospitalità. Invece, è un libro della Cusk. E, quindi, è tutta un’altra storia.
Tra momenti che a me echeggiano il gotico – la visione in treno del diavolo, la stessa palude accanto alla casa, il sabba orgiastico pittorico di L e Brett – e aspetti perfino melò, la sottile tagliente ironia che Cusk sfoggiava nella trilogia qui mi pare in gran parte assente.

La narrazione va avanti dall’inizio alla fine in forma di lunga lettera, o racconto orale (io opto per la prima ipotesi) a Jeffers, amico e confidente di M, che potrebbe essere un altro artista, forse un poeta. Jeffers si guarda bene dall’interrompere il flusso di fatti e riflessioni e dubbi che M solleva. Perché, è inutile negarlo, M racconta qualche fatto, ma ne approfitta per riflettere e filosofeggiare su mondo ed esistenza. Con la grazia formale e l’intensità a cui mi ha abituato Rachel Cusk.

La sala da pranzo

Un angolo del giardino

Celia Paul, «Lucian and me», 2019. L’uomo è Lucian Freud, al quale la pittrice inglese fu a lungo legata, e che sembrerebbe essere il protagonista maschile della «Seconda casa» di Rachel Cusk.
Profile Image for emma.
1,869 reviews54.6k followers
October 12, 2022
the truth of the thing is that rachel cusk could write about anything and the net result would be beautifully written, and introspective, and thoughtful.

this is no outline trilogy - not as moment to moment stunning and enlightening - but what an insane expectation that is to have.

i blame genius.

bottom line: good stuff!

tbr review

short!!!!!! literary!!!!!!!! fiction!!!!!!!!!!
Profile Image for Henk.
875 reviews
May 14, 2023
Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2021! - https://thebookerprizes.com/fiction/2021

Beautiful prose about a woman not really living her life, being in a seemingly perpetual second place
The truth was that I questioned the value of my love - I wasn’t sure how much benefit it could be to anybody.

Who is the devil at the start in the train and what happens there in Second Place? Sometimes I felt dropped into the middle of a rather opaque, if short tale about a slightly older woman (at least that was the vibe I got from the usage of explanation marks) narrating a visit of an artist to her home in an isolated march.
Not much real life details are given, despite some allusions to a world wide event (aka the pandemic) making travel harder. Still many real issues, including misogyny, dependency, regret and entitlement take an important role in this book.

The narrator has a daughter with a peculiar son-in-law, and an overbearing husband Tony who she seems to have overly submissive, deferrent feelings toward.
The rudeness towards the main character and her lack of self-confidence is woven in slowly, but quite brutally by Rachel Cusk, up until the point that she ponders that she doesn’t want her husband to take a dog since he might love it more than her.

It's a quite sad tale overall, including a rather deux ex machina event in respect to her guest. However if I don't sound enthusiastic, that's not entirely reflective of the reading experience (which I'd place at around 3.5 stars). The language usage of Cusk is brilliant and she is acutely observant.
I've ordered Outline and look forward to see more of her language pyrotechnics!

He doesn’t comment and he doesn’t criticize and this puts him in an ocean of silence compared to most people. Sometimes his silence makes me feel invisible, not to him but to myself, because as I’ve told you I’ve been criticized all my life: it’s how I’ve come to know that I’m there.

Change is also a loss, and in a sense a parent cab lose a child every day, until you realize that you’d better stop predicting what they’re going to become and concentrate on what is right in front of you.

Being with him in a particular time and place was the very opposite of being with other people: it was as if everything had either already happened or was going to happen afterwards.

I wanted him to be more than he was, or to be myself somehow less than I was, and because I wanted those things my will was aroused - in any case, there was the feeling of some unknown lying between us that awoke a dangerous part of me, the part that felt it hadn’t truly lived.

It’s all so silly, he said softly, half to himself. You get tired of reality, and then you discover it’s already gotten tired of you. We should try to stay real, he said, smiling that awful smile again.

Some people write simply because they don’t know how to live in the moment, I said, and have to reconstruct it and live in it afterwards.

It almost felt like the less I had to worry about, the sadder I became.

Only tyrants want power for its own sake, and parenthood is the closest most people get to an opportunity for tyranny.

I told her she would always be able to find a white man to be obliterated by, if that was what she decided she wanted.
Profile Image for Fionnuala.
792 reviews
August 25, 2021
Why do we live so painfully in our fictions? Why do we suffer so, from the things we ourselves have invented? Do you understand it, Jeffers?

That is how the narrator, M, expresses herself in a letter to a friend in the early pages of this novel which consists entirely of letters to the same friend. I expected to find out what role Jeffers had played in her life but never did. He remains shadowy to the very end, as if he were one of the fictional inventions M referred to in the early pages, a kind of mirror for her thoughts. An actual mirror perhaps, one that she's owned for a long time because at one point she says in her enigmatic way, You know what I look like, Jeffers, and I looked then much as I did before and do now. Sometimes she sounded like all women, an eternal woman, the first woman.

The narrative she pours out to Jeffers, the story of her obsession with a celebrated artist who eludes all her efforts to truly know him, is full of shadows itself. I thought I could see meaning in the shadows sometimes, but mostly they defeated me. What to make of a statement like this, for example: You know, Jeffers, that I am interested in the existence of things before our knowledge of them – partly because I have trouble believing that they do exist!

Well, I admit to having trouble believing M's world existed — although I was interested in her story before I read it because it was the new book by Rachel Cusk, and I'd enjoyed Cusk's Outline Trilogy very much. But this new book puzzled me a lot more than her previous ones. I could see that Cusk was doing something interesting from a writing point of view, and the descriptions of the Eden-like setting are as soothing as a beautiful painting, but I was frustrated at not knowing what her intentions were in this curious story. I finished the book without figuring out anything useful, and the author's brief afterword about what had partly inspired M's narrative didn't help. It was an unusual experience for me, not to be able to comprehend a narrative, as if my capacity for receptivity to an author's creativity had finally exhausted itself. Why hadn't I paid more attention as I read, I thought? Why did I let this book elude me so? I don't remember when I felt so cast out from the world of a book.

That was in June. The book lay unreviewed for the last two months and haunted my thoughts so much that I decided to read it a second time. The edition I'd read in June was an e-book and I figured that an elusive narrative must be even more elusive when the book itself is a virtual one. Perhaps I might come to believe in M's story better if I could hold it in my hand. I went out and bought a paperback version. As you can see, I'd become obsessed with this book, almost as obsessed as the narrator is with the artist she enigmatically names L and whom I began to call, second time around, Lucifer.

It's a useful exercise to read a book like this twice. Early scenes make more sense because you know what comes later, although meaning can still remain elusive. But I paid much more attention to everything I read, helped by a good font on good paper, and I completed the puzzle of the book to my own satisfaction. I was aware that I was pulling the narrative apart and remaking it in a frame of my own invention but I didn't know how to read it any other way. There's an ineffability at the heart of this book that pushes it well into incomprehensibility. To conquer it, I had to rewrite it according to my own vision of the world even if the truth of the book still lies somewhere beyond it. If you choose to read it, you may find the truth, but in any case, I hope that you will access an understanding that suits yourself.

So now it's done. I've filled the gap in my review shelf and I've filled the gap in myself which this failure to understand a book caused in me. Like M, at the end of her quest for full knowledge of L, which she only gets via his disintegration, I've found my equilibrium again.
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book2,131 followers
November 12, 2021
I've come to the end to this novel with a new sense of how language on a page can sometimes be so vivid and captivating that it feels like a lived experience. Cusk writes in a voice here that's formally beautiful and mysteriously antiquated, and tonally perfect for the story. Each sentence feels revelatory--there is so much evidence that each sentence has been carefully, precisely written. And yet the language never feels bogged down with its own importance--it soars.

A lot of things happen in this novel but the events seem to exist in a space between real and dream; between concrete and metaphor. So allowing yourself to be flung into that dream is part of what makes the novel work. I think you'll know from the first page whether you're the kind of reader who is willing to let this narrator take you on a journey, one where you may not always feel on solid ground, or always confident of where you're being led to. I love that kind of reading journey. I'm so grateful that Cusk had the confidence to write this kind of novel.

I've already declared confidently in my review of Maria Stepanova's IN MEMORY OF MEMORY that it was going to be my favorite book in 2021, but now I'm thinking that Second Place--a very different, and yet equally perfect book--might be that book for me.
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,306 followers
January 21, 2022
Now a Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.
Longlisted for the Booker Prize

Lorenzo in Taos

“High-class pseudo-philosophical hocus-pocus” ... thundered Aldous Huxley in 1933 while reviewing Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Lorenzo in Taos.

This was her epistolary account of DH Lawrence’s time in the New Mexico town in the 1920s, with his wife Frieda, at Mabel Dodge Luhan’s invitation.

Published two years after his death and ostensibly about the famed author, The New York Times Book Review in 1932 described it as “a puzzling book … more of a revelation of Mrs Luhan than of Lawrence.”

She had hoped that Lawrence would capture Taos, and the local Pueblo community, in the same way as his Sea and Sardinia: “Here is the only one who can really see this Taos country and the Indians, and who can describe it so that it is as much alive between the covers of a book as it is in reality.”

But his output failed to meet her expectations and they ultimately parted on bad terms, with DH Lawrence criticising her in his literary output and her verdict on him at the end of her book:

“Well Jeffers. That is all I have to tell you about Lorenzo in Taos. I called him there, but he did not do what I called him to do. He did another thing”

Why “Jeffers”? Well, much of Lorenzo in Taos was in the form of correspondence with a poet Robinson Jeffers, who she hoped might deliver where Lawrence didn’t. The preface to Lorenzo in Taos begins:

“Dear Jeffers —

This book tries to show you how we felt and acted some years ago.

When Frieda read it, she wrote me: “But Lorenzo was not like that any more. Taos changed him…”
I told her that I could only tell in these pages how we all were then, that I had lived through the time we passed together here and recorded it, and so this recollection is only of the painful days that brought about changes in us all, and not of the change itself.”

Second Place

Rachel Cusk’s Second Place takes Lorenzo in Taos as an explicit inspiration. From a radio interview

"It seemed to say say something or represent something essentially about femininity and the female voice, that I didn't feel I had actually met or encountered that thing before, which was an essential powerlessness or passivity or a condemnation to be the viewer, or the consumer, or the recipient, of art and male cultural privilege."

Cusk's first person narrator M. is an author who lives with her second husband Tony in a house on the salt marshes (presumably inspired by, but far more remote, than Cusk’s own property in Norfolk.), albeit one she has now sold.

Earlier, while married to her first husband, she encountered the work of the artist L. on a trip to Paris. This was a transformative experience but one that was first to bring her to a lowpoint in her life, including an incident on the journey back:

I once told you, Jeffers, about the time I met the devil on a train leaving Paris, and about how after that meeting, the evil that usually lies undisturbed beneath the surface of things rose up and disgorged itself over every part of life. It was like a contamination, Jeffers: it got into everything and turned it bad.

Many years later M. invites L. to their house in the belief (like Mabel Dodge Luhan with DH Lawrence) that he will, uniquely, be able to capture the essence of the surrounding marshes.

He eventually comes, after an epoch-defining but unspecified event (which causes both markets to crash, and restricts international travel). And as with Lorenzo in Taos, things don’t pan out as the hostess expects, but it is nevertheless a transformative experience for all concerned.

Is this an Oulipian take on Lorenzo in Taos?

The novel would, I suspect, benefit from a close reading alongside Lorenzo in Taos as there are many many more parallels than just the basic setting.

In Cusk's own words "it's a reuse of an existing text" and "finding Mabel's book was like finding an abandoned house and thinking here's a space that's already been built on, and I can go in there, and I can renovate it" rather than write a completely new book.

Most obviously, the novel is addressed to a poet called Jeffers but some others I spotted (there are many more):

- M’s husband Tony is unsure of his origins, even his ethnicity:

His parents didn’t tell him he was adopted, and no one else ever referred to it, and since they lived a life of considerable isolation he says it wasn’t until he was eleven or twelve that he worked out what it meant that he was a different colour to them! I have seen photographs of Native Americans, and more than anything he looks like one of them.

Mabel Dodge Luhan’s fourth husband was called Tony Luhan and was a Native American.

- M’s first impression of L’s female companion Brett is that she has the “mouth of a comic-book gunman” - Mabel Dodge Luhan’s first impression of DH Lawrence’s wife was that she had “‘a mouth like a gunman.”

- Brett’s name is inspired by the painter Dorothy Brett, another member of the Laos community, a rival for DH Lawrence’s attention and the subject of much opprobrium in the pages of Lorenzo in Taos.

- DH Lawrence criticised Mabel Dodge Luhan for wearing loose fitting clothes - when L. eventually agrees to let M. sit for him, he tells her to wear something that fits.

- DH Lawrence disliked a chair gifted to him by Mabel Dodge Lulan, calling it the “iron maiden”. L and Brett refer to a similar item as “the electric chair.”

- DH Lawrence painted the cabin that the Luhan’s provided him in garish colours, including to their horror, a green snake wrapped around a sunflower. L and Brett paint a mural in M and Tony’s cabin with a snake wrapped around a tree trunk at its centrepiece.

- And M. overhears Brett and L. talking, ostensibly about the Eve in their painting but she feels about her:

Let’s give her a moustache, the castrating bitch!’ while Brett shrieked with laughter.

‘Cause of all the trouble,’ he said, blotting the figure’s upper lip with thick black strokes.

‘And let’s give her a nice fat little belly,’ Brett cried.

While Mabel Dodge also overheard DH Lawrence (Lorenzo) and Dorothy Brett while they were painting a mural of the Garden of Eden say:

"Here's Eve—the bitch," Brett said, viciously, "cause of all the trouble. Here, let's give her a good fat tummy."

And Lorenzo answered, responsively: "Yes, the dirty little bitch with her sly, wistful tricks."

- And as spotted by my Goodreads friend Debra. From Second Place:

"Oh Tony, I’m sorry to have said such terrible things. I know how good you are to me and I don’t want ever to hurt you. It’s just that sometimes I need to talk in order to feel real, and I wish you would talk to me."

He was silent, lying on his back in the darkness and staring up at the ceiling. Then he said: "I feel like my heart is talking to you all the time."

Based on a parallel conversation in Lorenzo in Taos:

"I didn’t mean to hurt you, Tony. But it’s so hard for me, sometimes, when you don’t talk to me for days."

"It seems to me my heart is talking to you all the time,” he said. It was. It was. I knew it. How ruthless we are when we live on the surface of life!

Some more courtesy of Gumble's Yard:

LIT - when she first meets Lorenzo/Lawrence "I died inside and became speechless, Tony is never any help at such a moment, and he just stood there" : Second Place - when she first meets L "I was so wrong footed .... Tony is never any help in that kind of situation - he just stands there and says nothing ... I became blank inside"

LIT - immediately afterwards "I made out, in the twinkling of an eye, that Frieda immediately saw Tony and me sexually, visualising our relationship" Second Place - immediately afterwards "I saw that she [Brett] was imagining me and Tony together sexually"

LIT - Lorenzo when he arrives at Taos "It's like one of those nasty temples in India": Second Place - Brett getting to the Second Place "It's a cabin in the woods, straight out of a horror story"

LIT - Lawrence says to Mabel "You have gone a long way but I have gone longer": Second Place: L says to M "You have gone far but I have gone further"

LIT - has "Mother Hubbards" for a critique by Lorenzo/Lawrence of shapeless dresses (in this case worn by Mabel ): in Second Place its Brett using the same term

LIT – “I wrote a parody about [Lorenzo] and sent it to Walter Lippemann, who saw I was hurt and replied “It’s your own fault. Don’t you know you can’t make a pet out of a snake” Second Place – when Arthur persuades M she cannot look after L post-stroke “You can’t expect to keep a snake as a pet”

LIT – “One morning when I was lacing my shoe, I lost consciousness and remained away from myself for twenty-four hours” Second Place “one day when I was lacing my shoe I fainted and remembered nothing of what had happened for the next twenty four hours”

LIT – we find that despite Brett’s father keeping a racing stable – he never let his daughters learn to ride. Second Place – despite Brett’s father being a famous golf player he never teaches her to play

LIT – Tony and Lorenzo have an argument after Tony shoots a porcupine – partly for food and partly as they are destroying his trees. Lorenzo has a “proprietary” attitude – he will not permit shooting in his vicinity and considers anything around him as belonging to him. Second Place – an almost identical scene plays out with a deer – with L having a “conception of property”

LIT – a character Clarence decides he is destined to be an author, wears a red velvet coat and arranges himself in a room with a typewriter and proceeds to write. Second Place – a longer version of this scene plays out with Kurt (and a black velvet housecoat)

LIT – Tony bellows “Come back here” at Mabel : Second Place – the exact same happens

LIT – Clarence wants Mabel that Lorenzo is “determined to kill you”: Second Place: Kurt tells M that L “intends to destroy you”

But is L. DH Lawrence or Lovis Covinth or Marsden Hartley?

But as an additional layer, L. as an artist is based not on DH Lawrence but on a combination of the artists:

- Lovis Covinth, whose work Cusk described in this 2019 lecture: https://vanderleeuwlezing.nl/sites/de... (source: https://www.newstatesman.com/rachel-c...)
- Marsden Hartley, who was also featured in Cusk's novel Transit as per this extract: https://www.vice.com/en/article/xdw3d... (source: Goodreader But_I_Thought_) and who also painted the desert at Taos (http://www.artnet.com/artists/marsden...).

That said the novel's very last words - from L, written to M. from the Paris hotel where he is to die "This is a bad place", are from one of DH Lawrence's last ever writings, a letter to Maria Huxley in 1930, from the French sanitorium where he lay dying, "This is not a good place."

High-class pseudo-philosophical hocus-pocus?

As for the book itself, well high-class pseudo-philosophical hocus-pocus would be very harsh, as it has some deep psychological insights, although at times (more my failing) I wasn’t sure I grasped the logic of the sentiments being expressed.

Two striking passages on artists and people which certainly needed a re-read:

One has to serve out one’s changes moderately, like strong wine. I had very little awareness of such things in my existence before Tony: I had no idea at all why things turned out the way they did, why I felt gorged with sensation at one minute and starved of it the next, where my loneliness or joy came from, which choices were beneficial and which deleterious to my health and happiness, why I did things I didn’t want to do and couldn’t do what I wanted. Least of all did I understand what freedom was and how I could attain it. I thought it was a mere unbuttoning, a release, where in fact– as you know well– it is the dividend yielded by an unrelenting obedience to and mastery of the laws of creation. The rigorously trained fingers of the concert pianist are freer than the enslaved heart of the music-lover can ever be. I suppose this explains why great artists can be such dreadful and disappointing people. Life rarely offers sufficient time or opportunity to be free in more than one way.


Painting people, he said eventually, was an act of both scrutiny and idolatry in which– for him, at least– the coldness of separation had to be maintained at all costs. For this reason he had always been especially disturbed by artists who painted their children. When people fall in love, he said, they experience this coldness as the greatest frisson of all, the fascination of a subject that can still be seen as distinct from oneself. The more familiar the loved one becomes, the less that frisson can be obtained. Worship, in other words, comes before knowledge, and in life this represents the complete initial loss or abandonment of objectivity, followed by a good long dose of reality while the truth is revealed. A portrait is more like an act of promiscuity, he said, in which coldness and desire coexist to the end, and it requires a certain hard-heartedness, which was why he had thought it was the right direction for him to take at this moment. Whatever promiscuity he had indulged in in his younger years, he had been fooling himself, because the hardening of his heart with age was of a different magnitude. The quality that attracted him now was unavailability, the deep moral unavailability of certain people, so that to have them was in effect to steal them and violate– or at least experience– their untouchability.

The verdict

But this is ultimately a fascinating read, a departure from the Faye trilogy, but no less successful and, as Cusk says in her afterword, a tribute to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s spirit, and, in my view, a wonderfully creative one.

Recommended. 4.5 stars and a strong prize contender. Thanks to the publisher via Netgalley for the ARC.
Profile Image for Bandit.
4,607 reviews466 followers
May 5, 2021
There’s literary fiction and then there’s literary fiction and typed up this doesn’t have the same effect as when spoken aloud, so how do I describe the sort of self indulgent, preciously worded, overwrought and overwritten work like this? It’s certainly literary in that it goes a long way to showcase the powers and beauty of words and in its efforts to understand and elevate emotions and inner workings of the mind. But very consciously so, reading this book you are constantly aware of the author doing this, the stylistic linguistic tricks don’t disappear into the story, in fact it’s almost as if they use the story as a mere canvas to show themselves off against.
Which still might have worked had the story and its cast not been so fundamentally offputting. So let’s talk about that…there’s a very simple basic plot that involves a middle aged woman who has a nice comfortable life and a lovely comfortable man to share it with who takes care of her financially and emotionally, but apparently not enough, so that she develops something of a crush on a famous artist and invites him to stay with them, on their property, in the second place they have built just for guests. It’s a sort of thing from a bygone era, when the wealthy got actively involved with the arts by sponsoring (in a way) the artists. And in fact, this is precisely what this book was inspired by Lawrence’s stay with a wealthy NY socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan at her Taos estate. Though one can only hope the real thing was way less convolutedly antagonistic than the fictional account.
L, the artist, known by the mere first initial, is from the get go a giant turd of a person, a precocious prick whose early found fame has apparently liberated him from all manners. At first he tosses the invitation aside, but eventually dire financial circumstances force him to reconsider and so he shows up, with a much younger woman in tow no less and expects to be doted on. And the protagonist of the novel is thrilled to do so. In fact, she relocates her own daughter and her milquetoast of a bf into the main building with her and her ever patient spouse, so that L and his lady might have the privacy they require.
From then on, it’s all about the screwed up group dynamics of this uneven and unpleasant situation. The protagonist never becomes likeable in her fawning adoration of the man who plainly wants nothing to do with her, but use her for her money. L never becomes…well, he doesn’t even come close to likeable, he remains a prick throughout, graduating from precocious to petulant and then descending into his own tragedy too profoundly to be rescued even by money. L’s lack of any semblance of gratitude is only ever as striking as the protagonist’s lack of need for it. She’s driven by something different, something less quantifiable and infinitely sadder.
In the end, they are both tragic in their own ways, though she manages to maintain her unevenly loving marriage as a safety net. L, to the very end, remains unworthy of attention or affection. The note in the end doesn’t do much to rectify that. And yes, I know, I know, it’s dangerous and possibly wrong to view fictional characters through the prism of one’s own morality, but it can’t be helped. We read as we are and as I am, I was appalled by this characters. And not all that enamored by the overdone writing either. There is, objectively, a certain beauty to it, but it’s too much of the same, most meaning and profundity wrapped up in so many words that it’s all but obscured. There are some interesting and well done meditations of the nature of relationships, marriage especially. But overall the affect is mostly muted but the thoroughly unpleasant story.
The book’s official description mentions female fate and male privilege, because of course that’s what you mention nowadays to sell books, but frankly the female in this book is the privileged one and the power games played between her and L have less to do with feminism and wokeness than they do with personal shortcomings of those two as people. The publishers have obviously tried to make the book fit into the contemporary hot button mold, but it’s nowhere near there.
In the end, I can’t remember the last time an obviously well written literary book has made me so angry. The look at me, look at me, look how clever I am with words thing it had going was just much too much. And who the f*ck is Jeffers? Why is the entire stupid thing addressed to Jeffers who never makes an appearance or is mentioned otherwise? Is it to justify the epistolary form? Is Jeffers the one who gets and enjoys this sort of thing? Well, good for Jeffers. I’m out of here. At least this book had the decency to be short. Definitely an acquired taste. Thanks Netgalley.

This and more at https://advancetheplot.weebly.com/
Profile Image for Meike.
1,591 reviews2,816 followers
January 23, 2022
Now a Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award 2021 (Fiction)
Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2021

The unreliable narrator of this novel harbors a dark secret - but what is it? It's the puzzling nature of the human soul and how it is pondered in this text that renders the book so intriguing. As the story progresses, one wonders more and more what happened to "M", a 50-year-old writer, who lives remotely in the marshes with her down-to-earth, nature-loving husband Tony. She invites a famous painter who is down on his luck to join them in their second humble dwelling (that's the literal meaning of the title, but as this is Cusk, the term "second place" has many more layers), and soon enough, there are four visitors on the grounds, two directly bringing back haunting memories from the past, two mirroring M's fears and insecurities...

Fear is a big topic in this book. Rachel Cusk takes no prisoners when she evokes hallucinatory images and gothic twists that point at a trauma deeply buried in M's consciousness; M wrestles with an overwhelming sense of being treated unjustly, a sense of infuriating helplessness and invisibility as a female literary creator. While her husband Tony "didn't believe in art - he believed in people, (...), in nature", the visiting painter represents reckless creation without any consideration for others (at least at first). In an afterword, Cusk states that the story owes a debt to Lorenzo in Taos, a memoir by Mabel Dodge Luhan about the time D. H. Lawrence visited her in New Mexico, and Cusk sees "Second Place" as a tribute to Luhan's spirit.

"Second Place", much like the Outline-trilogy, is a treasure chest for readers who love labyrinths and puzzles: There is A LOT to find here, ideas, motifs, riddles, images...it's the whole extravaganza, and it's great fun to dive into it. M is the central figure and remains both closest to the reader and furthest away. She tells the whole story to the enigmatic Jeffers - and us, of course, and herein lies her key to freedom: "Language is the only thing capable of stopping the flow of time, because it exists in time, is made of time, yet it is eternal - or can be." By telling her tale, she makes us see her.
Profile Image for David.
296 reviews757 followers
July 30, 2021
This is one of the standout works of the year. On the surface, Second Place takes the form of a letter written by a woman called M to an unknown character, Jeffers, about an artist called L who stays in M’s guest cottage. The story is reminiscent of Mabel Lujan’s Lorenzo in Taos, which Cusk acknowledges in a postscript. Through this form, Cusk deftly explores gender roles, aging, family dynamics, art, what it means to be an artist, and other themes. I thought this was excellent.
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books969 followers
September 2, 2021
First of all, Jeffers, you'll want to know that this book consists of the protagonist -- a certain "M" who is a lady of letters (but no name) -- addressing an entire narrative to someone called Jeffers. You know this because, every two pages or so, she says "Jeffers" mid-sentence.

This, Jeffers, becomes a distraction for the reader.

Speaking of distraction, M has a thing for this famous painter named (wait for it) "L." As you can see, they are quite close, Jeffers. In the alphabet.

In the book, M cold-writes L, inviting him to a "second place" (read: cottage) on her property where he can paint in peace (note: a tall order, given her stalking propensities). The fact that a total stranger would write a famous painter thinking he would accept such a bizarre invitation is crazy. The fact that L accepts M's invitation is crazier still.

In literature, Jeffers, this is what's known as "the suspension bridge of disbelief."

M has a husband named Tony (you were expecting "T" perhaps?) who is like a large puppy dog. Think St. Bernard complete with mini-barrel collar. Devoted beyond belief (remember the bridge from last paragraph). But M, who is not very likeable (making the M-person point of view particularly trying, Jeffers) seems convinced that L will become her soul mate. And, of course, that he will paint her. And, of course, that the painting will become Starry, Starry M.

But he won't paint her, Jeffers! He's as ornery as Leonardo (or was it Michelangelo who had the temper?). Whichever. One of those Neapolitan grouches. And if you suspect this refusal might bring some schadenfreude (I looked up the spelling, Jeffers) for the reader, give yourself the Sherlock Holmes award!

As an omniscient POV narrative, this book might have been more interesting, but reckoning with the rather suffocating 3rd-person limited-to-M point of view makes it a bit of a trial. The author is trying to make some points about painting and life, I think, but it's the unlikable personality that keeps photo-bombing her intent. It's like a thick filter that doesn't so much filter things as block them. This happened with my lawn mower once, Jeffers, and it positively refused to go on!

Not that the book is all THAT bad, Jeffers. This isn't one of those stink bomb, one-star reviews you so cherish when visiting Goodreads. No, it had its moments. Like p. 128, where I marked the quote "Nothing evil ever dies. Especially of remorse." It reminded me of the front page of The New York Times from 2016-2020, Jeffers.

And, on p. 158, where I noted the line, "But the self is our god -- we have no other." I think Freud would like that, Jeffers. Just like he did the id and the super ego and a cigar being a cigar.

In the end, M learns something about herself as a mother and a wife, but not much about her L problem. I'm convinced there was a grand plan regarding L and painting and life, too. But it never quite got off the ground, Jeffers. Just like my plan to throw a big "Covid Is Over!" party this fall.

Well I suppose it's time to sign off, Jeffers. I've decided to 3-star this book. I kept reading, after all, though I don't know why. In the name of that mystery, I'm awarding the author some points. Clearly something was at play in the subconscious here, something the author was aware of and I was not.

Once I realize what this magical ingredient is, I plan to paint it. First, though, I will take a walk on the marshes. There's something about them -- never quite nailed down, but mentioned frequently -- in this book. Perhaps, then, if I see for myself?

Take care or, as they say nowadays: Stay safe (best place to succeed: that "second place" called a "cave")! Your trusted pen pal, Special K.
Profile Image for Katia N.
586 reviews702 followers
September 13, 2021
I finished this book a few days ago and I am still thinking about it. It is somewhat incoherent work in a good sense of the word. One cannot tightly connect the dots. And it opens itself to a wide range of interpretations. And that is a good thing - anyone can take away something tailored to the individual aspirations.

However a few aspects are more certain. She took someone’s else work. She used it as a vessel. By that, she freed herself from worrying about the usual suspects such as the plot or characters. Moreover, she freed herself even from choosing a particular style. The novel is written in the form of a long letter. I have not checked the source of her inspiration, but the way how tightly she controls the style tells me it was borrowed as well from there.

I am surprised I have not seen a review yet written as the pastiche and starting: “The thing is, Jeffers, I have not been interested in the plot and other attributes of a classical novel for a while. I’ve explained all of this when I was writing my previous book (the Trilogy). There, Jeffers, I tried to annihilate such things like the plot, narrator’s voice and a setting. And now, Jeffers, maybe for the first time, I try not to spend time thinking of a style; that is, Jeffers, if it is out there already, created by someone else and ready to be used.”

I promise not to continue all my review in that manner… So, she took all of this “oven ready”. And on these basis, she has created a profound metaphysical inquiry. She populated this old story with a new meaning making her heroine question “what is real?”. Is there something sublime we do not usually have an access to? This inquiry has become the main purpose of her work. This question is a very old one. But it is often the torturing one, especially for those with an artistic gift. Because no artistic vision comes without cost. And it is even more true if you are a woman.

When I was reading this story it was pretty clear to me that it is a Faustian tale with some feminist connotations. “The Devil” has appeared to M (the main character’s name) at least three times in different disguises. First, she discovers for herself the works of L, an artist in the pinnacle of his fame. Something in those works inspires her to change her life radically by leaving her family and starting a new search.

She reflects later on that period:

“I viewed myself in the cruellest light. Never have I yearned more to be capable of creating something than at that time. It felt as though only that – to express or reflect some aspect of existence – would atone for the awful knowledge I seemed to have acquired. I had lost the blind belief in events and the immersion in my own being that I realised had made existence bearable up to that point. This loss seemed to me to constitute nothing less than the gain of perceptual authority”

This loss of belief in exchange for the knowledge is very close to the pact which artists make with the Devil in the tales about Faust. The loss is exchanged for that thing she called here “perceptual authority”, on in other words, the gift to see something the others cannot and to be able to reveal it.

It reminded me of the phrase from Goethe which I found puzzling initially, but which might be understood nevertheless in its powerful contradiction. On the question who he was Mephistopheles answered:

"I am part of that force which eternally wills evil and eternally creates good.”

Many acts of pure creation often are based on the destruction of something important and previously existing .

I am not sure Cusk was thinking any of this while writing this book. I do not know whether she wanted to deliver a predetermined message or simply used the book as vehicle to talk about art, the limitations of its creators as well as her usual themes of difficult relationships, divorce and motherhood. All the above is just my interpretation of this work. But:

The truth lies not in any claim to reality, but in the place where what is real moves beyond our interpretation of it. True art means seeking to capture the unreal.

And I admire her sentences, sometimes elliptic, but always very accomplished.
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,173 reviews8,387 followers
August 2, 2021
[5 stars]

Longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize

The premise is simple. M. lives with her second husband, Tony, in a remote marshland on the coast of an unnamed country. There they have a quaint home and a 'second place,' a guest house of sorts which they allow others, mostly artists, to inhabit for some time. M. invites L., a moderately renowned painter with whom she has a distinct fascination, to stay on their property. What unfolds after L. arrives happens almost exclusively within the mind of M., our narrator.

Why does M. need L. to visit so badly? What does she hope will result from his visit, and more importantly how does the reality of this visit illuminate, or cast a shadow on, what M. had hoped would occur? What does it mean to be a mother? To be an artist? To exist in the liminal? To seek the unreal in the everyday? These are all questions M. muses on throughout the course of this short, but profound and sharply written novel.

Because wow, can Cusk write? Yes, she can. This was my first, and won't be my last, Cusk novel. I'd heard of her for the last few years with her cult status following around the Outline Trilogy. I'd been intrigued but never compelled enough to pick it up. I will after this.

I can't even begin to pull quotes to share from this for a few reasons. Firstly, I think I highlight probably 25%+ percent of this book on my Kindle. Also out of context, the quotes themselves may seem odd or lack detail because they come from the inner working of M.'s mind and the novel definitely roots itself in her point of view. Though it's not quite stream of consciousness, and a surprising amount of plot does happen in this novel, it's got a dreamy, detached quality to it while still being so firmly grounded in M.'s psyche. It's a confusing contradiction that Cusk is able to balance the philosophical and emotional in such find detail.

Another surprising feature of this novel is its length. My edition was only 137 pages but did not feel that short. It's incredibly dense, with passages I found myself reading over and over again, not only to grasp their meaning but to appreciate, to savor. And like I mentioned earlier, the plot is simple but it propels the story forward and kept me engaged, while Cusk was then able to layer on top M.'s musings and internal monologues. I loved that balance of plot and character sketching, all rounded out by great writing.

I do know this is based loosely on, or at least inspired by, Mabel Dodge Luhan's memoir Lorenzeo in Taos, about the time when D.H. Lawrence visited her in New Mexico (presumably the L and M of this novel). Though, I don't think knowing anything about that matters, and reading this doesn't necessarily make me interested in reading that memoir. I appreciate that it stands alone and that I can see it as its own entity, something entirely from Cusk's imagination. Plus, with the questions this novel asks about our compulsion to create and what draws our creations out of us, I think it's interesting to see this response, of sorts, as its own creation entirely.
Profile Image for Eric Anderson.
686 reviews3,397 followers
August 31, 2021
It's been quite a while since the publication of “Outline” which is the only other book by Rachel Cusk that I've read. I was enthusiastic to try her fiction again by reading “Second Place” since it has been listed for this year's Booker Prize, but now I remember why I've avoided her books. I'm not necessarily put off by the ponderous nature of her narratives or the rarified environments her fiction is set in. It's more the manner in which she writes about her characters which is entirely centred on the self, but avoids getting to the heart of their being. Her narrators seem so intent on intellectualizing their position in life and relationships with other people that I struggle to emotionally connect with their experiences or point of view. I understand this is a conscious choice and sometimes what is left unsaid says more than forthright confessions. But this stance is more troublesome than preventing me from connecting with her characters. It means I actually struggle to engage with the ideas and issues raised in the story because I don't understand the narrator's position.

This most recent novel is told from the point of view of a woman speaking to someone named Jeffers. Who Jeffers is or why she's giving him a detailed account of a particular time in her life is never specified, but it means she controls the entire narrative and the only information we have is through her subjective point of view. Can we trust her perspective? Even though she states “I am determined not to falsify anything, even for the sake of a narrative” we're often left wondering how much she's shaping this story based on what she chooses to recount and what is left out. We never even learn her name as she's just referred to as M. Her story concerns a period when she invited a famous artist (only referred to as L) to her coastal English home to temporarily reside in a small guest cottage on her property that she refers to as the second place. Given that the letter M comes after L we can already see the layered meaning of this novel's title.

Read my full review of Second Place by Rachel Cusk on LonesomeReader
Profile Image for Lisa.
991 reviews3,320 followers
September 5, 2021
I think every person has a second place.

That place that is the white to your black and the black to your white. The warm to your cold and the cold to your hot. The icy rationalism to your deepest passion and the hungriest greed to your lethargic carelessness.

It is you, but turned inside out.

Strangely moved by the fact that the main characters are called L and M - the initials of my two given names - I saw the evil and the act of creation as two sides of the same story, as the two ways to look at the same facts through different introspective choices that you make inside your head.

We are all living in different versions of reality fog, getting stronger certainly because of "our current circumstances", which the novel hints at without mentioning them outright, and which could be anything really, as "our current circumstances" have been confusing since Antiquity. I take it that the current "current" is corona (now that's a sentence to be avoided in an essay that is being graded!), but as the story also alludes to a writer community around DH Lawrence in the 1930s, that past "current" could be an equally fitting scenario for the never-ending quest for reality in art and art in reality.

Why are we so incomprehensible to each other? Why can't we belong and be free at the same time? Why is it so hard to be kind while we see each other, when we spend time apart longing?

Second Place feels like the nightmare of secluded yet hyperconnected life turned into literature.

As such it is spot on 2021 and timeless too.

I loved it as it gave my fog structure. But I didn't like it - for the same reason.
Profile Image for Emily B.
442 reviews440 followers
April 30, 2021
3.5 rounded down.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publishers for a digital copy of this book.

Second place was full of snippets of observations and feelings I feel are also inside of me. Despite this relation to the main character I did not love it as much as expected. These snippets were poignant for me but the story as a whole was less so. Overall I can appreciate that it is a well written and intellectual book.

'Why was it so difficult to live day after day with people and still remember that you were distinct from them and that this was your one mortal life?'

This was my first read of Cusk's work and I would read more, perhaps her essays.
Profile Image for Doug.
2,046 reviews744 followers
July 28, 2021
Update: And now longlisted for this year's Booker - which gives me the incentive to go back and reread it, once I get through the others.

4.5, rounded up.

Cusk's 'Outline' trilogy, the only other works of hers I've read, made my top reads list of 2018, and this new novel will squeak in for this year's list also. It's a dense and thought-provoking read. and would benefit, I believe from a second close reading, in order to plum all its depths (as it was, I went back and re-read the first chapter once I'd finished, in order to settle some nagging questions I had left).

Much like the trilogy, I suspect this is a work of auto-fiction, although our narrator here, known only as 'M', is not quite the same persona as Faye of the earlier works. The title alone has at least three, if not four 'meanings', and often I had to go back over passages to make sure I was gleaning what the author intended. So this is NOT a 'light read', but it certainly rewards the reader's attention, and often borders on sheer brilliance. I hope it gets as much critical and awards attention as her early works merited.

Sincere thanks to F S & G and Netgalley for the ARC, in exchange for this honest and enthusiastic review.
Profile Image for Marc.
3,109 reviews1,176 followers
February 24, 2023
There is quite a bit of meat on the bone in this book. To begin with, Cusk offers a slightly feverish soliloquy from a 50-year-old woman in crisis, a soliloquy addressed to a certain Jeffers, clearly a friend. The woman is not known to us by name, occasionally we only learn her initial M (a first similarity to Cusk's Rachel Cusk Collection: Outline, Transit and Kudos). After a failed career and marriage, she has found new stability with solid and silent Tony, quite a contrast with her own character; they live in a remote area at the coast, near a salt marshland.

Her monologue to Jeffers focusses on her fascination with the visual artist L., whose work exudes an unyielding, very extroverted identity. Because of her failures, and especially because of the constant criticism on her as a person, M is obsessed with her self-image, a self-image that is extremely negative in every way, and especially as an aging woman and a mother. It's the first time since reading the work of Karl Ove Knausgard that I read such unrelenting self-analyses.

Fortunately for the story, M does not give up. In an overconfident mood she invites L. to stay in their countryside, in a nearby cottage (yes, “the second place”). She clearly hopes that L. will be able to help her in her search for her own new identity and self-confirmation, for instance by painting her portrait. With some delay the older artist arrives, much to her dismay in the company of a gorgeous, rich young woman. I will not reveal the further course of events here.

The premise of the cocktail that Cusk brewed is definitely worthwhile, but in my opinion the elaboration is not completely flawless. There are some odd twists in the plot, and M's constant bitter grumbling about her own feelings and lack of acknowledgment by others doesn't help the story itself. In addition, she constantly spreads 'wise thoughts' about life, about the disadvantage of being an older woman (another reference to 'second place'), and about the relationship between art and reality. There are some interesting things in there, but a lot of it also sounds rather hollow.

Which brings us to the questions: where is all this leading? What does Cusk want to express? It is clear that she wanted to paint a portrait of a woman in crisis, and she certainly succeeded. This is manifestly also the story of a human being (in this case female) in search of redemption (the biblical connotation of the house on the marsh land as a kind of paradise is certainly not accidental; there are also quite a few references to snakes). Whether she succeeds in finding that redemption, is irrelevant. Cusk's most striking message seems to be how much we humans can be mistaken in ourselves, in others, and in our desires and aspirations.

Is this a successful novel? Well, that is up for debate. Cusk has done her best to make her narrating protagonist as unsympathetic as possible: to be honest, her self-centered whining and bleating, her almost childish desire for recognition got on my nerves. Not that a main character necessarily has to be sympathetic, not at all. M's monologue and her impulsive actions are fascinating and intriguing, but they are also a bit repulsive. And that brings me to an aspect that I haven't noticed in the many reviews I've read about this book: namely that Cusk actually here wants to bring a 'goth' story. Just think of it: the dragging, morose monologue to an unknown third party about a curious episode in the life of the narrator, the meeting with a devilish figure during a train journey from Paris (just at the start of the novel), the remote house (and annex) on the marsh land, the artist L. as a demonic figure, the nocturnal observations of the outhouse where L. is staying, the constant emphasis on mysterious elements…. They are all ingredients of a classic 'gothic' story. If you look at it that way, you can certainly call this book a success. But Cusk is Cusk, she doesn't make it easy on her reader, and continues to go her own way. Intriguing and fascinating, but also unruly. (rating 2.5 stars)
Profile Image for Trudie.
544 reviews585 followers
August 20, 2021
Not for me this rumination on non-dogs and artists. It might be time to find something with a semblance of a plot.

With due apologies to fans of Rachel Cusk, this type of book appears not to be a match for me as a reader. Or alternatively, the novel did not match my reading mood and encountering it at some other time might unlock meaning?

As far as I could tell this is an essentially plotless and deeply ruminative story with a somewhat formless narrator. Something about inviting artists to stay in your cottage on a marsh and how that turned out to be an imposition? It didn’t help my inner voice grumbling: “kick them out and move on” when I was trying to ponder things like :

in matters of being and becoming, an object can remain itself even at the mercy of conflicting perspectives. The non-dog represented the necessity for trusting and finding security in human beings …
Yet the non-dog was a fact… and we were able to agree on it, even while it meant different things to each of us. The fact represented the boundary or separation between us, and between any two people, that it is forbidden to cross.

Quite a lot of weight (waffle?) put on a decision to not get a dog?

Eeek Booker Longlist throw me a bone here!
Profile Image for Teresa.
Author 8 books817 followers
September 20, 2021

After reading the author’s note at the end of the book, I felt I had to reevaluate all that came before. I’m not sure if the note’s contents are a spoiler, but I’ll refrain from talking about it since it might color a potential reader’s preconceptions. At some point I looked up the name Jeffers, the person the narrator is writing a letter to, and wondered if the real-life poet I’d discovered could fit the time period. (I now know he can.) Having read the author’s short note, I almost wanted to reread the book, but I wasn’t inspired enough by the writing style to do so—for only one thing: all those exclamation points! (The punctuation makes sense because the conceit of the novel is that it’s all a letter.)

Because Cusk’s narrator does a great job illuminating the meaning(s) of the title, Cusk’s more subtle uses of the phrase “first place” jumped out at me: They speak to at least one of the same themes. The other words that jumped out at me were those dealing with creation and creators, the setting of the novel being an Eden of sorts. There are also a few late references to snakes. Yet no god expels the men: They do it to themselves.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,491 reviews2,726 followers
July 27, 2021
Now Longlisted for The Booker Prize 2021

So... it's only January and I've met one of my undoubted books of the year already!

This may not be as formally innovative as Cusk's Outline trilogy but it's arguably a more challenging book with its existentialist probings and sheer smartness. It's so rich and dense that any easy summary escapes me - and plot, of course, isn't the point anyway - but I will say that I made 80 notes and annotations in a book less than 200 pages long. This is a novel just begging for a re-read (and another re-read, a desert island book, for sure).

In some ways, what this reminded me of is Plato's dialogues where characters contemplate complex ideas, and different philosophical positions are in discussion, sometimes in the form of harsh clashes, with each other. As the dialogues are filtered through the authorial voice of 'Plato', so here they're verbalised through M, a female some-time author, who writes a series of letters to Jeffers, within which are contained the substance of the text, including some inset letters from the painter, L.

Ideas about subjectivity and objective 'truth', about gendered power dynamics, art and reality, how to live a 'free' life and what that might mean, fear and solace, beauty and rage, loneliness and connection, mother love, sexual/romantic love, love of self are all here, treated with sophistication and an assured intelligence. The very definition of the 'second place' varies by character, though the concept of the subsidiary position of women is crucially important.

Inspired by Lorenzo in Taos, though seemingly set in the present, (there's a teasing 'global pandemonium' that has affected the stock markets and made travel difficult but people still hug and live 'normal' lives), the shade of D.H. Lawrence adds a dimension to this novel, not least in the biblical/mythological imagery of demons and temptation, a mural of Adam and Eve with the snake, and a mini-flood that follows a dramatic encounter.

Cusk's writing is fluent and graceful, such a pleasure to read, but incisive, too, in the way it balances forward movement and the stasis of contemplation. Anyone like me who has been waiting eagerly to see what Cusk would do after Kudos can breath a sigh of relief - this is superb!

Many thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for an ARC via NetGalley.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,272 reviews49 followers
August 18, 2021
Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2021

I saved this book as the last of my initial batch of 11* books from the Booker longlist because I have read all of Cusk's previous fiction and wanted something special to look forward to. I have to say that I was a little disappointed - it stands up well to most of the Booker longlist but I preferred the Outline/Transit/Kudos trilogy. I don't know whether it would have helped to read the book that inspired it (as Cusk acknowledges in an afterword), Lorenzo in Taos by Mabel Dodge Luhan.

M, The narrator of the story lives in a remote coastal house that belonged to the family of her second husband Tony, and the Second Place is a cottage they found in the grounds while clearing undergrowth, and renovated as a home for guests. L is an artist (whose role in the book is loosely based on Luhan's D.H. Lawrence, with writing replaced by visual art), and having seen a Paris exhibition of his work, M invites him to stay in the Second Place as she thinks his perspective of its views would interest her. Needless to say this visit does not proceed as she expected, but to say too much about why might spoil the book for new readers.

The book is told in a series of letters to Jeffers, whose role in the story is never explained directly, but is based on Robinson Jeffers, a poet friend of Luhan's. Other characters in the story are composites or more fictional, and there is no direct equivalent of Frieda Lawrence in Cusk's version.

As always with Cusk, the writing is very impressive, and there are plenty of interesting ideas.

* the other two being Lockwood, which I had already read for the Women's Prize, and Powers, which I won't be able to read until it is published.
Profile Image for William2.
758 reviews3,077 followers
May 23, 2023

1. How this story differs from the books of the Outline trilogy. The narrator here is more present and possesses a greater capacity for abstraction. Whereas in Outline trilogy the narrator tends to let others speak while she fades into the background. Here's a bit.

"Because this is partly a story of will, and of the consequences of exerting it, you will notice, Jeffers, that everything I determined to happen happened, but not as I wanted it! This is the difference, I suppose, between an artist and an ordinary person: the artist can create outside himself the perfect replica of his own intentions. The rest of us just create a mess, or something hopelessly wooden, no matter how brilliantly we imagined it. That's not to say that we don't all of us have some compartment in which we too are able to achieve ourselves instinctively, to leap without looking, but the bringing of things into permanent existence is an achievement of a different order. The closest most people come to it is in having a child. And nowhere are our mistakes and limitations more plainly written than there!" (p. 32)

2. As in Elena Ferrante's books there is this disappointment with one's own children or oneself as a parent.

"It made me feel old, older than the most ancient monument, which is how children make you feel when you still presume to produce an original feeling of your own now and then. Language entirely fails me at such moments, the parental language that one way or another I've neglected to keep up and maintain, so that it's like a rusty engine that won't start when you need it. I didn't want to be anyone's parent in that minute!" (p. 33)

3. The narrator, M, is smart and perceptive. She has been able to change her life upon seeing the paintings of the artist L. She invites him to the simple marsh-side home she shares with her husband and his arrival with a bimbo upsets her world. That M has the artist's sensibilities but none of his talent seems key.

"There's an art to that, and I have known enough artists to understand that I'm not one of them! Nonetheless I believe there is also a more common ability to read the surface of life, and the forms that it takes, that either grows from or becomes an ability to attend to and understand the works of the creators. One can feel, in other words, a strange proximity to the process of creation when one sees the principles of art - or of a particular artist - mirrored in the texture of living." (p. 55)

John GardnerMickelsson's Ghosts — once said that there are basically two novel plots. In one, a man or woman goes on a journey, in the other, a stranger comes to town.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,115 followers
May 27, 2021
I read some of this, I put it aside. I'm used to this initial response to Cusk, and usually feel gratified I've gone back to it. I'm not sure I'm feeling that yet about this one, but my feelings could change.

I went to Instagram first and pleaded for people who had already read it to discuss it with me. Before I even finished, I listened to the interview with the reviewer for the New York Times Book Review on the NYTBR Podcast talk about her approach and she let slide that this is all based on Cusk reading this memoir and then imagining that author's experience and then reimagining it into a different landscape and slightly different details and writing it from that perspective... but the reviewer also said that she saw all other reviews mentioning that detail up front, and feeling that the author kept it until the end for a reason. I listened to the author's interview with Michael Silverblatt on the KCRW Bookworm Podcast, where he started with the "spoiler." That's why this whole review is listed as a spoiler - it's hard to talk about with the book without knowing that the author read this obscure memoir about the time D.H. Lawrence came to stay with this artist in Taos. Once you know that, you can really see the author's wheels turning, and this book is the grain or the chaff. Maybe both.

If it's a spoiler, though, it's also the thing that helped me think it through and understand it, even if I still don't really know if I think it worked. It's interesting that she relocated it too. Cusk is someone who was born in Canada, grew up different places, lives in the UK... I think I thought she was American but she might as well be anything. The book is set in a marsh but we don't know which country, so few details are really there. Some read apocalypse narrative into the background but I wasn't sure that was there or if the people have just separated themselves from a sense of daily life. And she writes! with a lot of exclamation points! to someone named Jeffers! who is never explained.

Part of me felt it was the Barefoot Contessa who always is making everything "for Jeffrey" which might come across a bit loony if you didn't know better.

And all along she is dealing with a poor self image, or maybe just aging as a woman when your former power, if you ever had it, starts to wear thing, especially in comparison to the woman the artist brought with him when he came to visit. And her daughter is young 20s, a difficult age for mothers, I think.

I will keep mulling it over. Five-star mulling success, three-star success as a book... for now.

Thanks to the publisher for providing me access through Edelweiss. This came out May 4th, 2021.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
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