Though Lawrence is the inspiration, it isn’t his energy that dominates Second Place. Instead I sensed the residue of Anita Brookner’s weary protagonists: bright, cultured women who know what they’re missing out on and resent those who keep it from them ... As Cusk hits all the high notes of indignant rage, this book snaps and steams ... the mere existence of Second Place makes me wonder if she found the Outline trilogy as cleansing as so many of us did ... Cusk’s open experimentation is refreshing, as is her belief that a writer must keep moving forward, forging a rough chain.
You know when you’re reading a page of Rachel Cusk’s fiction. Her narrators tug insistently if coolly at the central knots of being. They analyze every emotion as if it were freshly invented. Nothing is extraneous ... The narrator is familiar: a sharply observant writer in middle age ... More notably, this book has a swirling hothouse quality that’s new ... It’s as if Cusk has been reading Joyce Carol Oates’s best novels. She digs into the gothic core of family and romantic entanglements. I filled the margins with check marks of admiration, but also with exclamation points. This novel pushes its needles into the red ... One doesn’t come to a Cusk novel for plot but for her extra-fine psychological apparatus. Yet there is a fair amount of plot in Second Place ... If I could have rubbed a lamp and lightened this book’s lurid intensities, I might have. It is not a novel that gladdens the soul. But gladdening the soul has never been Cusk’s project.
Rachel Cusk shows that after the confessionalism of the Outline trilogy, she’s reembraced artifice and abstraction. Second Place digs beneath the subjects of Cusk’s previous books — marriage, male privilege and motherhood — and engages with the murkier and more interesting relationship of art and evil ... Cusk has previously demonstrated how false narratives arise from honest feelings, in her nonfiction and the Outline trilogy. But while widely acclaimed, those novels are deliberately hollow — wanting to avoid a central 'I,' Cusk created mere 'outlines' of narrative, mostly anecdotes and contrived conversations. In contrast, Second Place is solid — despite its appropriation of Lorenzo in Taos. Or, perhaps, because of it; by using Luhan’s memoir as a template for character and plot, Cusk is able to dig deeper into the ideas that most interest her, taking Second Place to some profoundly insightful places. Near the end, Cusk writes, '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.' By writing this work of 'true art,' Cusk finally captures that unreal.
On the surface, then, this is a novel of glaring privilege, steeped in a mode of middle-class existence so rarified that the 'lower things' must never be allowed to intrude. This is, however, a Cusk novel, and in Cusk novels the surface, as experienced by reader and characters alike, invariably proves too fragile to be trusted. Second Place, it turns out, is a novel less about property, and more about the boundaries and misplaced emotional investment for which property is a proxy ... The novel’s emotional nuance, its stylistic poise, has been as perfectly and painstakingly constructed as the life it describes, only to be blown apart by a flat and shattering statement, weighted around a central, immovable truth ... Towards the end of the novel, the narrator says of L, whom she both admires and loathes, and by whom she knows herself to be loathed in turn: 'He drew me with the cruelty of his rightness closer to the truth.' We might say the same of Cusk, our arch chronicler of the nullifying choice between suffocation and explosion. Her genius is that in deliberately blurring a boundary of her own – that between a writer and her subject, between the expectation of autobiography so often attached to writing by women, and the carapace of pure invention so often unthinkably afforded to men – she tricks us into believing that her preoccupations and failings, her privileges and apparent assumptions, are not our own. By the time we realise what has happened, it is too late: our own surface has been disturbed, our own complacent compartment dismantled. It is a shock, but as the narrator of Second Place reminds us, 'shock is sometimes necessary, for without it we would drift into entropy'. Cusk is necessary too – deeply so, and Second Place, exquisite in the cruelty of its rightness, reminds us why.
Cusk’s language pulses beautifully — she’s one of Britain’s greatest stylists — even as her story spins into abstract digression. As in her previous work Cusk flickers around erotic sparks like a moth around a candle ... M considers L’s landscapes to be his best work; Cusk’s lush descriptions of the surrounding marshes are hers ... The final chapters of Second Place are less vivid and more cerebral as M skewers L’s contempt and her own erratic behavior. The claustrophobia here mirrors the claustrophobia of quarantine, how the past year has forced all manner of reckonings, but there’s a whiff of first-world problems that feels tedious. Cusk’s tone is deliberately arch, but undermines her more arresting scenes and sentences ... Quibbles aside, Cusk is fearless in her interior journeys, whether they lead to heaven or hell, or, more likely, to a banal purgatory of the self ... The novel’s most moving sections capture the delicate dance between mother and daughter, how Justine reflects back to M her own ambivalences. And Cusk plays up the double entendre of her title: the second place refers not only to the guest house on the estate but also to the role male artists assign to women. Second Place may not rise to the triumphs of her previous books, but it showcases her signature economy of style, her fascination with the schism between body and mind. For Cusk, the heart at war with itself may be the final frontier, and she’s determined to boldly go where no writer has gone before. Her explorations of love and lust are singular.
As if unsure how to control the pitch of all this emotion, Cusk has borrowed the novel’s rough conceit from Mabel Dodge Luhan’s novel about D.H. Lawrence, Lorenzo in Taos ... But we learn nothing at all about this second Jeffers, and so the form of address reads like a send-up of the epistolary novel more than an epistolary novel, with the ridiculous name of her confidant evoking a chauffeur or some other aristocrat’s professional acquaintance ... Instead of turning away from criticism, Cusk leans into the idea of protagonist as a property owner in Second Place, as if Cusk is daring the people who called her 'petty and irritable'...for writing about being unhappy in her remodeled London house, to hate her now for being unhappy in her coastal compound. This way, the narrator becomes a little cartoonish and self-pitying, and therefore fit for the horrible burlesque that cranks into being ... This erring into the freakiness of tradition, into stories about snakes and divine revelations of knowledge, gives Second Place a looser feel than Cusk’s previous works about gender and domesticity ... she finds the limits of detachment, and the possibilities opened up by occasionally allowing oneself to be provoked.
Cusk returns with a stunning work about womanhood, self-acceptance, and the search for personal freedom ... Instead of seeking the unreal, perhaps exploring reality itself allows us to better appreciate more modest satisfaction, and even love. And inhabiting the space between being a creator and an observer doesn’t make us insignificant ... introspective and amusing, an impeccable work of art.
... the novel’s electric charge comes from the asymmetric relationship between L and M. L’s artistic genius is connected, like Satan’s, to his claims of absolute freedom ... He needs M and also needs to cast her as his nemesis. M, meanwhile, is desperate for a kind of transcendence by proxy, a view of life that is more potent than what she has found in her conventional roles as wife and mother, so she becomes an unstable co-conspirator in L’s program of humiliation and destruction ... a sharp feeling of estrangement is crucial to Ms. Cusk’s fictions. The writing, so heightened and epigrammatic, seems almost to mock the homespun fashions of traditional realist prose. Its beauties are glittering and mirrored in the way of razor wire: Artistic truth, in her books, is always a savage thing ... the voice here—loving, bitter, impassioned—is gripping in its volatility.
... a lovely and vicious piece of work. It is vexed and questing, in search of some missing piece, some object that will bring meaning to the world but is utterly inaccessible; it fairly seethes with discontent ... it’s M’s ceaseless, ravening want that animates this novel, swirling under the surface of every immaculate sentence. Dwight Garner calls Cusk’s prose 'hot-but-cold,' which comes as close as any descriptor could to summing up the exact quality of her sentences: They are detached, but also passionate; they writhe with furious wanting; they analyze all wants with ferocious mistrust.
The sentences aren’t so concentrated as before, and they don’t culminate, like [Cusk's Outline trilogy's] Faye’s, in lyrical beats—they just keep going, half-breaths in a long-rambling speech. This, we know, will be different, and the narrator will define herself through her own speech, not subtle implication or half-silence or tone ... Cusk creates an interesting mix of atmospheres with a contemporary levity of description and voice ... reading it, I did not feel excited or moved, as with Outline or the best recent fiction. But the novel’s unusual rhythms and voice lingered with me like those strange, violent dreams in which the secrets you perceive in close ones reveal themselves and alter you for hours, for days. The voice reaches and reaches at answers to broad questions. Sometimes it pulls back pieces of insight and beauty.
...beguiling if uneven ... slender, tricky ... In Second Place, Cusk (Outline) traces the arrival of a well-known painter to the isolated guest house of a woman who seems to hunger for some proximity to his art, or just his presence ... Place thrums with an inner life only teasingly hinted at; one more mystery that age and wisdom can choose to conceal.
Cusk seems to be trying out another way of working through her ambivalence about making stuff up ... unrealised desires for artistic self-expression are associated with those who have, historically, been less able to exercise their creativity independently ... Second Place shows the freedoms of art to be ambiguous and often entirely arbitrary. They are the results not of visionary inspiration but of practice, patience and the dullness of repetition ... It’s a sentiment that helps understand the tragedy of this book, as well as the monumental achievement of Cusk’s recent novels, which possess a hard-won freedom and a glittering brilliance which could only be achieved after long and rigorous training.
[A] psychological novel that's a serious exploration of themes that include female identity and the meaning of art ... It's an unsparing, at times devastating portrait of one middle-aged woman's profoundly damaged self-image and her failed dreams ... Cusk meticulously charts the rising tension between L and M, ratcheting up the suspense as the two come into a conflict ... Cusk is a patient, elegant writer, in some respects like her creation M ... Second Place is the admirable product of that determination ... In this meticulous and provocative psychological novel, a troubled woman's encounter with a powerful artist sparks a profound crisis.
Those who missed the pleasures of Cusk’s earlier books will be pleased, up to a point, to know that Second Place offers a synthesis of old and new: a story that draws on life but also has a bit of a plot and definitely some big characters ... We’re ready for some knockabout fun, but Cusk isn’t really a knockabout writer. The comedy in her earlier books was interrupted by elegant, interrogative passages of introspection, which are even more prominent here: even the exclamation marks that pepper M’s narrative seem nervy and bathetic rather than light-hearted. The occasional truly funny scene seems to be there to show us that Cusk can still turn it on; it’s just that, like Picasso with figurative painting, she doesn’t want to any more ... There can be a tension between the story and M’s essay-like reveries as Cusk wrestles to decide what she is most interested in. The hybrid form that results — half-novel, half-not — has a timeless, enduring quality, even when it is occasionally frustrating. If that is the price of following the path of one of our most reliably interesting writers, I’ll take it.
... a strange novel. The publisher calls it a fable, and perhaps it is, in the sense that many of Cusk’s books can be read as fables of female dissatisfaction. Drawing on the observational spareness of her celebrated Outline trilogy and the eccentric vigor of her earlier work, she powerfully blends evocations of personal turmoil with ruminations on art, truth, freedom, the will, men and women, and more ... lets us listen as one such woman tries to describe what happens to her—in her mind and her body, alone and in the company of others—as she finds herself stymied.
... not only deeply rooted in place, but also driven by plot as M shares her engrossing, linear story with Jeffers. The novel is both deeply contemplative and highly aware of the reader, exploring art and the artist, place and presence, and, ultimately, truth and reality ... The language here is soft and susurrus ... dense, beautiful writing throughout this novel, particularly in her descriptions of place. Through her carefully shaped descriptions of place, the narrator creates her own kind of art in her address to her audience, Jeffers ... worth reading for its sharp descriptions and powerful story alone, but it’s the in-depth exploration of the purpose of art that makes the story meaningful. Though M only anticipates the art in the landscape, never writing at all during the story, we are aware she is a successful writer, and, more importantly, we know she is crafting this story for an audience. Herein lies the power of Cusk’s rich, captivating novel: Cusk is always aware of her reader, reminding us that the process of creating art can often be invisible.
At times the relationship between M and L, for all the time spent on it, seems superfluous to the familial details that Cusk focuses on. It’s as if the narrator to the very end believes that L is driving her towards something, that he is pivotal to the story as well as to her relationship with those around her, and so that must be the relationship on which to center the story. This somewhat exasperating way of choosing to narrate a story only serves to highlight how well done Cusk’s first novel after the Outline Trilogy is; it simultaneously dreams of the story wished to be told, while painstakingly giving ground and telling the story that we actually read, one of family relationships strained by the never-ending passage of time ... Even as Cusk writes about the shoddy nature of reaching for some sort of 'higher ideal' in art, she reminds why she’s actually a one-of-one artist, because the story set out to be told wasn’t told, but maybe it will be next time, and the people around will let you change, or become something new, or realize a truth and be celebrated for it, just maybe that’ll happen.
Cusk’s first post-trilogy novel, Second Place, hews closer to the novel’s standard shape. Second Place is a fiercely odd, even unfashionably allegorical book. Structurally, though, it isn’t abnormal at all. It’s an epistolary novel — the most old-fashioned form! — and one that uses all of fiction’s standard tricks. I’d be disappointed if it weren’t so bafflingly good ... In the highly inventive Second Place, Cusk uses fiction as a tool to turn readers away from art, toward life.
The opening salvos in Cusk’s new novel, Second Place, by contrast, set up expectations the book doesn’t quite meet — at least for this reader. Others might have no problem with it at all ... Second Place itself is filled with ruses as its players seek to affirm or destroy one another’s agendas. These can sometimes be hilarious — for instance, when one character, abruptly deciding he wants to be a writer, thinks the first step is to don the right outfit ... a beguiling, sidewinding meditation on 'the possibility of dissolution of identity itself, of release, with all of its cosmic, ungraspable meanings.'
...one of Cusk’s most readable, enjoyable and thought-provoking novels. She manages this trifecta with clean prose that immediately feels like you’ve been swung into an ages-old conversation with your best friend ... The first-person narrative is exceptional. Somehow, our protagonist is telling the story of this summer to Jeffers, a person about whom little to nothing is known. She pours out her guts to him in a most funny and conversational tone that allows us to feel as if we are inside her very tumultuous soul and brain ... Second Place is more than a great summer read, although it easily could be consumed during a beach vacation on a lounge chair between swims. It is a romance, a thriller, a memoir, a piece of fiction that is unlike anything else you’ve ever read, and very much a showcase for the magnificent work of the bright and bold Rachel Cusk.
There are some fine lines too – 'The truest test of a person is the test of compassion’ – but somehow the overall effect feels less powerful than it did before, perhaps because the reader feels that a story that has been brilliantly told and has reached a natural ending has somehow come back to life, but without quite the complexity or daring of the original ... Thematically, there is much to admire. Cusk writes about art as if she doesn’t entirely trust it, resenting the power it has to dominate a life ... Second Place is a good novel by a great novelist but it suffers from comparisons to the earlier books, simply because they are too alike in tone. That said, criticising a Rachel Cusk book is like carping about a disappointing movie from a favourite filmmaker.
... a comedy of misrecognition ... Justine does not come into sharp relief—in her youth she is all potential—but she allows M to speak of motherhood, which she thinks of both as a burden and a form of power ... It is out of these clashes and the tensions they create—who will be humiliated next?—that the novel’s very potent comedy arises, a comedy much more satisfying than M’s own rather prolix reflections on what it means to be seen, parenthood, gender roles and the nature of being an artist ... One thing Cusk has done in Second Place is to restore some mystery to the idea of artistic genius in an era when we prefer to speak of 'craft' and 'process'. In her hands, art and artists are anything but banal. And so what if they’re monstrous?
... a strange and fascinating story of a battle of wills ... just as violence is always bubbling beneath the surface in this novel, so is a raucous kind of social comedy, made all the funnier by M's deadpan delivery ... Right from the start of the novel, though, there's something weird going on, with M's constant address of the story to someone called 'Jeffers', whose identity and relationship to the narrator is never revealed ... I wanted either more explanation of the significance of all this, or not to have had it hinted at me at all. How much is Cusk’s L hers, and how much Luhan’s? Does meta matter? Here, it distracts from the parts which seem unique to Cusk: the evocation of place, the shrewd and tender depiction of M’s relationship with her daughter and the unflinching analysis of relations between the sexes, where 'so much of power lies in the ability to see how willing other people are to give it to you.'
There are the usual Cuskian longueurs, as well as moments of brave, sharp insight. Then you start to lose your way. L and M keep having intense conversational encounters: they hate one another, yet they’re drawn inexorably together. Cusk’s prose, always oddly fustian, starts to sound like a cut-price Victorian novelist. There’s a lot of heavy-handed Garden of Eden symbolism. It feels like a strange rehashing of a DH Lawrence novel, with talk of wills and true origins and destroying one another. For no apparent reason M narrates the novel to someone called Jeffers, whom we never meet ... If you make it to the end (not a foregone conclusion) you’ll find a note explaining what the hell’s been going on ... Everything is accounted for—except the central, utterly baffling question. Why did Rachel Cusk write this book?
Second Place is unlike the [Outline] trilogy but reads very much like a reaction to it ... Although the book’s sparse plot derives largely from interpersonal drama, this is rendered almost entirely in summary, with only the occasional section of dialogue ... The book must have been all but complete before the outbreak of Covid-19; perhaps Cusk’s fictional disaster is prescient, or coincidental. But it’s not difficult to imagine her adding the handful of sentences that refer to this impending disaster as she attended to her page proofs ... Very little happens in Second Place, but the book is alive with movement, as the characters’ roles change and the context of even the most prosaic acts shifts dramatically ... Cusk’s characters are often displaced, alone with the wrong people, blind to (or excessively wedded to) customs and conventions, and lacking in self-knowledge. Second Place seems to me Cusk’s most sophisticated and mature distillation of these elements; it’s not a comedy, but it employs many small mordantly comic effects that function like a jeweller’s steel blade, cleaving faceted gems out of rough stone. It represents a new mode of organising the fragments of perspective that the trilogy exploded: a deannihilated novel, and a very good one.
This novel is tightly written, tense and solemn, but there are some comical moments, although unfunny to the characters ... You don’t have to get all the references to and to the fiction of D. H. Lawrence, who made enough obscure references himself to make your eyes glaze over, to enjoy this novel, but it certainly adds to the demonic fun of it all.
Cusk adopts a tone of breathless melodrama and frequent exclamation marks ... [DH] Lawrence is one of Cusk’s literary heroes and in many ways Second Place feels like a tribute to him, with its profound interest in selfhood, self-will, ecstasy and dissolution ... Cusk is pushing back at her own construct of the invisible female protagonist—which in itself was always a slightly stagey contrivance. Another contrivance is the withholding of key information about her narrators ... And yet despite these evasions, Second Place feels more exposing than anything Cusk has written in recent years. It is unsparing in its account of the shame and ugliness M feels as an ageing woman ... With its unity of time, place and theme, Second Place has the feel of a well-made play, or a classic country-house novel, in which a group dynamic is disrupted by a mysterious stranger. Relationships are tested. Characters experience emotional and sexual awakenings. Tensions reach boiling point. But ultimately, the power of Cusk’s novel lies in the fullness and intensity of M’s confession as she tries to navigate late middle age with all its thwarted hopes and humiliations.
... subtly mythic ... is in part a study, without mercy, of the perils and rewards of this male vantage. And mostly a persuasive one, though at times the phlegmatic and forbearing Tony seems too convenient an embodiment of the good masculinity M thinks she might need to escape ... M’s combination of eloquence and unease is a model for how Cusk’s novels function on a larger scale, the taut surface of her style ever present, stretched like a canvas to receive the saturating anxieties and colorful delusions of her characters. Second Place is full of the sort of beautifully spiky sentences that readers may have thrilled at in her celebrated trilogy of Outline, Transit, and Kudos.
... a brilliant but flawed allegory filled with ravishing descriptions of nature set in an unidentified land after an unspecified global financial collapse that has rendered travel almost impossible ... Cusk’s decision to model her book after the earlier work came with risks. On the one hand, it gave her ready-made plot points because of Luhan and Lawrence’s tempestuous relationship. On the other hand, it also gave her the baggage of a white woman’s beliefs about Native American culture in the 1920s ... Thus, M. speaks to Jeffers in an archaic voice, which Cusk renders in the text by using lots of distracting exclamation points. Also, M.’s second husband, Tony — based on Luhan’s fourth husband, a Taos Pueblo Indian named Tony — is a caricature of a Native wise man, in tune with the rhythms of nature ... Oddly enough, while Cusk is extraordinarily adept at depicting the shifting alliances among the secondary characters, the relationship at the center of the book — between M. and L. — never makes much sense. The fact that it doesn’t matter is a testament to Cusk’s astonishing skills as a storyteller and a writer.
While readers familiar with Luhan’s (admittedly obscure) text will enjoy spotting overlaps, there is nothing to be lost in approaching Second Place on its own terms ... John Berger’s proclamation that men look at women while women watch themselves being looked at resounds throughout Second Place. While Cusk never falters, her characters do little else – and for M, striving to make sense of life through someone else’s eyes, L’s perspective starts to seem more hindrance than help ... Whether or not it is used here in faithful homage to that parent text, the novel’s confessional letter form is as delicious for Cusk’s readers as it is frustrating for her protagonist.
Cusk, as always, is brilliant at the subtleties of human dynamics, which here are as ever-changing as the landscape against which they’re set ... There are the expected digressions — mostly compelling — on topics like art and freedom. There’s sly humour, too ... Though the novel is plotted, it mostly operates according to a sinister dream logic.
Cusk loves to make metaphors out of a space’s vastness, where a landscape illuminates the drama of the narrator’s life: an unending sky that makes miniatures of airplanes, an ocean that drops its contents off at the horizon ... Like always, Cusk writes about narrative as such, namely its trappings, which the marsh offers to solve by transcendence ... Cusk continues her struggle with issues of power, but often slips into easily-drawn essentialisms that do little to provoke more nuanced critique ... Cusk’s successes come by way of mood, and tension rings at a dissonant pitch throughout the novel ... The novel’s inquiries into art and truth wrap the whole book in slippery significance; just as something gets worked out, it is broken down again, shards blending in with the ground.
The Outline trilogy is a hard act to follow, but Second Place is an excellent next step ... We have no idea who Jeffers is, but rather irritatingly, Cusk repeats his name every few pages, lest we suspect that she's speaking into a void...The conceit feels forced ... The drama of the ruthless artist is not new, but as plumbed by the ever-probing Cusk, it still feels rich. That said, some readers may lose patience with M's ungrateful artist-in-residence ... As always, Cusk doggedly teases out her complex, occasionally mind-numbing concerns. There's also some beautiful prose ... Although Cusk doesn't explicitly address specific instances of artists who have been called out for their reprehensible behavior, her novel channels a moral reckoning we see taking place more widely in our culture.
Where the sentences of the Outline trilogy are crisp and smoothly cadenced, in keeping with Faye’s orderly mind, the writing in Second Place vacillates rather awkwardly between the conversational and the ponderously philosophical, with more than its share of exclamation points thrown in for good measure. It’s finally a question of balance, and while the prose does mirror the restlessness of the narrator’s mind, it also seems to be constantly eluding Cusk’s grasp, foregrounding interpretation over any kind of narrative incident on which to turn that interpretative impulse. Begrudgingly doling out little doses of event, Cusk then rushes headlong into what appear her real interests: dense paragraphs of overlong and increasingly abstract philosophizing ... We are knee-deep here in Cusk’s favorite themes — fate, narrative, and will — but the metaphysical puzzling is rife with confusion ... Because these convoluted musings are what Second Place is really about, they frustrate the functioning of the book as a novel. Cusk gives readers a few things to grab onto — a serviceable evocation of the marsh, along with a few strong scenes and images, including one involving the (perhaps literal) devil on a train from Paris, which comes at the beginning of the book, foreshadowing L.’s appearance, and which is more vivid and intriguing than anything that follows. But because Cusk quickly abandons all these footholds in favor of airy interpretation, the story stumbles. After all, there must be something there to interpret in the first place ... If the Outline trilogy had seemed to push beyond the novel while still working within the form, then Second Place suggests that Cusk may have outgrown the genre entirely, even as she still tries to work uncomfortably within its limits. Either way, the tale that the book’s narrator tells is highly unsatisfactory. To put it in Cuskian terms, where it’s easy to suspend disbelief when listening to the stories that make up the Outline trilogy, in Second Place, that necessary illusion simply fails to hold.
Second Place is the first-person testimony of another Cusk-like writer, M, who invites a celebrated painter, L, to stay in the annex of her marshland home ... So begins an intimate psychodrama in the shape of a social comedy about the hazards of hospitality ... Cusk’s sans-serif Optima typeface, now as much a part of her brand as high-pressure deliberation on gender and selfhood, adds to an indefinable sense of threat, with the novel’s diction caught between the lecture hall and the analyst’s couch ... the glassy prose can feel like a two-way mirror with the author smirking on the other side ... But while Second Place indeed turns out to be fictionalised memoir, the twist is that it isn’t Cusk’s. An endnote advertises the novel’s debt to the bohemian socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir Lorenzo in Taos ... Ultimately, there’s something excessive and undigested in the novel’s bid to recast Luhan’s thwarted longing for Lawrence’s recognition as a modern-day battle of wills between a sympathetically needy writer and standoffish painter. It’s a pity, because as a tale of midlife malaise, Second Place glints with many of Cusk’s typically frosty pleasures; she’s especially sharp, for instance, on the fraught enterprise of parenting grownup children who return to the nest. In the end I couldn’t help feeling that, freed from its source, the story would have got along just fine by itself.
Like much of Rachel Cusk’s writing, Second Place feels more like a conduit for philosophical and cultural thought than mere storytelling ... What erupts is a taught, discomfiting drama, one that allows ample scaffolding for Cusk to build out keen observations. A long list of enduring topics are tackled with graceful, flowing ease ... Cusk is at her best when she works in diversions, as she does with the deceptive simplicity of Second Place. The novel is skilfully meandering, offering consistent flashes of insight while traversing a great deal of intellectual terrain. The drama is tight and the action straightforward, but when it comes to the beguiling complexity of human nature, the wisdom offered here is significant.
Once again, Cusk delivers a novel so thorny with ideas that every sentence merits a careful reading, yet crafted in language as ringingly clear as fine crystal ... It’s wrenching reading, yet in the end M has gracefully readjusted her life, as L has not ... A gorgeously sculpted story of living and learning; for all readers.
Readers need not know anything about that literary-history byway, however, to enjoy this brooding tale ... Cusk here rediscovers the joys of plot ... Brilliant prose and piercing insights convey a dark but compelling view of human nature.
Cusk’s intelligent, sparkling return (after Kudos) centers on a woman in crisis ... Cusk expertly handles the logistics of the crowded setting, building tension as the characters form unexpected, temporary alliances ... 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.