From the author of the Outline trilogy comes a story about a woman who invites a famous artist to use her guesthouse in the remote coastal landscape where she lives with her family. Powerfully drawn to his paintings, she believes his vision might penetrate the mystery at the center of her life. But as a long, dry summer sets in, his provocative presence itself becomes an enigma—and disrupts the calm of her secluded household.
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.