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.
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.
...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.
... 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.
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.