It’s good to know up front that Rachel Cusk’s new book is a roiling treasure hunt of a read, because the plot sounds static and bare at first blush. In the flattest of descriptions, the novel concerns a woman’s frustrating experiences after inviting an artist she admires to stay in her guest house.
The real action in “Second Place” is inside the head of the narrator, known only as M, whom we meet through the discursive diary-type letter that makes up the book. M is bitterly observant, emotionally scarred, and tartly amusing all at once. We never learn as much about her life as we might like, but she makes readers consider their own existence through her ruminations on human relationships, identity, art, and power. Some of M’s interior landscape will be familiar to readers of Cusk’s other books, which range from a brutally honest motherhood memoir to an unconventional fictional trilogy about a British writer. (Cusk lives in London.)
We know that M, an author, has survived old domestic traumas and now lives in a secluded marshland with her second husband, Tony. They have built a guest house, the “second place” of the title, to which M’s artistic acquaintances sometimes make pilgrimages to rest and create. The informal patronage satisfies M’s need to take in “the higher things” of life that she requires and that steady, quiet, competent Tony does not.
M writes to tell the artist – known only as L – that an exhibition of his paintings had transformed her life 15 years ago. She invites him to come experience their property and hospitality.
Her deeper motives are fuzzy but gradually come into focus: M wants to be seen as she truly is, darkness included, through the artist’s amoral – even cruel – gaze. To her, the “second place” isn’t just the guest house, it’s the unhappy turns of her own life and the unacknowledged struggles of being a woman.
It seems, M writes, that “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.”
When the artist accepts M’s invitation, the situation gets complicated fast. He arrives with an uninvited companion: a fashionable young society woman who could not be more different from middle-aged M. Far from being M’s salvation, the artist seems to take pleasure in provoking her. Meanwhile, M’s 21-year-old daughter Justine and Justine’s boyfriend have also joined the household.
Most of the story hinges on seemingly pedestrian questions that contain tense, smoldering pleas for closure – the sort that wouldn’t be out of place in a period drama. Will the artist ever paint M? Will he at least see the marshy landscape of her home in the way she does? What does she want from him, and vice versa?
And the friction between M and L is as constant as that between a stubborn match and its box.
As M puts it, “When the east wind blows on the marsh it makes everything feel very cool and contrary, even in the warmest weather – well, L was something of an east wind, and like that wind he fixed himself to the spot and settled in to blow.”
The book is dizzying but also engrossing and thought-provoking, elliptically summoning echoes of everything from Rousseau’s paintings to E.L. Konigsburg’s “From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.”
And if its setup sounds old-fashioned, there’s more than one reason: The author notes that the book “owes a debt to ‘Lorenzo in Taos,’ Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir of the time D.H. Lawrence came to stay with her in Taos, New Mexico.” It is intended, Cusk writes, as a tribute to the spirit of Luhan, a controversial patron of the arts.
Knowing the homage clears up some mysteries – both books are in the form of letters written to a recipient named Jeffers, for instance. M’s Jeffers is, oddly, never explained, while we know that Luhan’s is the poet Robinson Jeffers. Other parallels in the novel are less clear. Most readers won’t be familiar with Luhan’s book; we have to assume “Second Place” is meant to stand on its own.
Cusk’s turns of phrase are lovely and her philosophical points are sharp, for example when the artist tells M that he considers himself nothing more than a beggar. M’s retort reminds him that, as a man, he’s operating from a position of favorable circumstances in the first place. “He couldn’t see his own freedom because he couldn’t conceive of how elementally it might have been denied him. To beg was a freedom in itself – it implied at least an equality with the state of need.”
Typically, Cusk’s dissections of female power are especially perceptive when they’re closest to home, focused on the dynamics between mothers and children.
“When Justine was younger there had been a feeling of malleability, of active process, in our relations, but now that she was a young woman it was as though time had abruptly run out and we were frozen in the positions we had happened to assume in the moment of its stopping,” she writes.
By book’s end, the evolution of that mother-daughter relationship is the most satisfyingly artful, taking second place to nothing.