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Second Place: by Rachel Cusk

Rachel Cusk’s Second Place questions what freedom and agency entail and what purpose art serves. Believing herself forever changed after visiting a painter’s exhibit, a disaffected, yearning woman reaches out to the man behind the work and invites him to stay in the spare home owned by her and her husband, Tony. Instead of fostering kinship between them, the living arrangement breeds resentment between the woman and the perpetually bitter artist ― respectfully M and L ― as they attempt to assert their will over their opposite. The effects of their conflict ripple out to M’s family and L’s uninvited guest.

The novel’s plot is chiefly internal and imposed upon Cusk’s cast. Friction generates from M’s insecurities and frustration over L’s refusal to acknowledge her as someone worth his attention. He never seeks her out, and their interactions mostly occur by chance meeting. Their conversations are self-important and combative, delving into how their personal histories shaped their characters and perspectives and why they’re attracted or repulsed by their counterpart. M feels she’s never been allowed to develop an identity and sought out L years after seeing his art, appreciating its evocation of freedom and remembrance and becoming “awakened” by its messaging. The “second place” on M and Tony’s property was built as a separate space the former could do with as she pleased, often housing artists looking for a refuge to create.

L’s concept of freedom, however, entails what M considers a particular amorality that claims no responsibility other than to what or who he desires and can mold to his liking. Sensing that his rival is trying to force a friendship between them, L is disgusted and wants to “destroy” M, though how he plans to do so isn’t detailed. This may be why he continually ignores her, in hopes she’ll grow dejected and stop pursuing him. The most overt, external conflict arises when L relents to M’s insistence he paint her, setting off a chain of events that leads to M betraying Tony’s love and discovering L hated her so much that he would defile her sanctuary with vulgar murals and verbal mockery. Ironically, L’s derision becomes his undoing. Perhaps harboring so much anger caused him to fall ill and into the care and mercy of someone he spurned, coincidentally as M’s own fortunes take a better turn.

Cusk’s novel is more philosophical and sociological ponderance than story. It describes the subtle sexism that affords men the ability to do as they please while women are held down by societal expectations and obedience. It also establishes art as an escapist conduit from reality’s confines. Though at times insightful, Second Place’s observations lean towards navel-gazing at the expense of development and action. M’s daughter evolves the most out of anyone through relationships with her boyfriend and L’s female guest, but the mother can only give outsider perspective. M touts Tony as a paragon of down-to-earth goodness and love, but their interactions show little emotion and connection. (Tony is also the only person of color, and his one-dimensional deification and distance reads awkwardly tropey.)

Since little physically happens, M’s musings comprise the narrative and offer a lofty, narrow point of view. An afterword notes the author drew inspiration from socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir, Lorenzo in Taos, chronicling author D.H. Lawrence’s visit to her artist colony. The attribution teases more context into Second Place than Cusk’s own story. Even cursory research reveals her characters and plot are based on Luhan’s associates and experiences, including a “Jeffers” who never appears in the book and is only addressed by M ― the fictional version of Luhan herself. Understandably, the author would want her work to stand on its own, but if she’d been upfront about borrowing from real-life events rather than saving it till the end, the novel would’ve felt more grounded and sensical. As is, though, Second Place’s accessibility is iffy depending how versed readers are at the cerebral gymnastics the novel demands and how willing they are to overlook meager characterization.

Cusk’s novel is more philosophical and sociological ponderance than story.
45 %
Myopic mind games
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