cover image Second Place

Second Place

Rachel Cusk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25 (180p) ISBN 978-0-374-90778-5

Cusk’s intelligent, sparkling return (after Kudos) centers on a woman in crisis. The narrator, M, is a writer living on an isolated coastal marsh with her second husband, Tony. They have built a guest cabin on their property, which they call the “second place.” Through a mutual friend, M invites a painter, L, to stay in the cabin. L’s art deeply affected M 15 years earlier when she was a young mother and was struck by the work’s “freedom” and how it was “elementally and unrepentingly male down to the last brushstroke.” To her surprise, L accepts, before canceling. M’s daughter, Justine, and her new boyfriend, Kurt, who reminds M of her first husband, move into the cabin just before L shows up with a gorgeous young woman named Brett. The characters enter an uneasy equilibrium on the marsh as allusions of a global financial disaster fill in the backdrop. L paints portraits of everyone except M—which devastates her. Cusk expertly handles the logistics of the crowded setting, building tension as the characters form unexpected, temporary alliances—Kurt and L, Brett and Justine—and M’s isolation increases. There is the erudition of the author’s Outline trilogy here, but with a tightly contained dramatic narrative. It’s a novel that feels timeless, while dealing with ferocious modern questions. Agent: Sarah Chalfant, the Wylie Agency. (May)