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Second Place (2021)

by Rachel Cusk

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3782159,695 (3.84)1 / 51
"From the author of the Outline trilogy, a fable of human destiny and decline, enacted in a closed system of intimate, fractured relationships"--
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English (19)  Dutch (1)  Catalan (1)  All languages (21)
Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
Hard to fault writing, difficult themes and no easy answers, some characters ciphers. ( )
  hypostasise | Dec 22, 2022 |
“This is partly a story of will, and of the consequences of exerting it, you will notice… that everything I determined to happen happened, but not as I wanted it! This is the difference, I suppose, between an artist and an ordinary person: the artist can create outside himself the perfect replica of his own intentions. The rest of us just create a mess, or something hopelessly wooden, no matter how brilliantly we imagined it.

Narrator and protagonist M admires the artwork of famous artist L and invites him to stay in a guest cottage on her property. She lives in a marshy region near the coast. The book opens with M meeting “the Devil” on a train, and this encounter is the catalyst for her invitation to L. She envisions developing some type of (unspecified) relationship with him. At first, he spurns her invitation but eventually accepts. Much to M’s surprise, he arrives with a beautiful young woman. M lives in the main house with her second husband, Tony. Her adult daughter and her boyfriend are visiting.

The book is told in epistolary style, addressed to an individual named Jeffers (who plays no other role in the story). It is a character-driven book with little plot. The tone is dark. The writing is striking.

In addition to the literal “second place” (guest cottage), there are references to feeling inferior throughout the narrative. M is a writer but is overshadowed by L’s success as an artist. She feels second in beauty and attraction to the lovely Brett. She feels secondary to her ex-husband in their daughter’s affections. She feels that, as a woman in a creative field, she must overcome more hurdles than a man.

“I said to him that ‘second place’ pretty much summed up how I felt about myself and my life – that it had been a near miss, requiring just as much effort as victory but with that victory always and forever somehow denied me, by a force that I could only describe as the force of pre-eminence. 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.”

We spend the majority of time in M’s head. She is writing to Jeffers almost as if talking to herself. What she imagines will happen when L comes to stay is not what actually happens. L is a narcissist. He comes across as a rather despicable person.

“I realised, hearing him talk, that he was without any fibre of morality or duty, not out of any conscious decision but more in the way of lacking an elemental sense. He simply couldn’t conceive of the notion of obligation.”

M is not the most admirable character either. She does not appreciate her husband, Tony, though he seems like the most stable and empathetic character in the book. It is a book for those who do not mind unlikeable characters. I found it is easy to admire the writing and the craft.
( )
  Castlelass | Oct 30, 2022 |
Although I've enjoyed Cusk, this book did not work for me. It drifted, the characters were not fully drawn, the place, which may be the point, was the most memorable. ( )
  ccayne | Jun 15, 2022 |
24. Second Place by Rachel Cusk
published: 2021
format: 180-page hardcover
acquired: November read:May 8-12 time reading: 5:04, 1.7 mpp
rating: 4½
genre/style: Contemporary Fiction theme: Booker 2021
locations: East Coast US tidal salt marshes
about the author: British-Canadian author born in 1967 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, who grew up partially in Los Angeles, but mainly in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

opening line: "I once told you, Jeffers, about the time I met the devil on a train leaving Paris, and about how after that meeting the evil that usually lies undisturbed beneath the surface of things rose up and disgorged itself over every part of life."

I‘ve now read eleven from the 2021 Booker longlist; two to go.

I thoroughly enjoyed this. Cusk is intense, from that first sentence above. And the monologue never stops. If you can tolerate that, she‘s a wonderful writer who captures thought processes in complex ways that touch familiar. I'm sure I'm not alone in reading how she says what she thinks, and noticing how much it seems like my own thinking - not the thoughts, but the manner of them.

Here the married narrator invites a male artist to live on her property‘s extra place, the second place. Her property is unusual, natural and beautiful but not necessarily desirable. It lies somewhere among the Eastern US tidal marshes. When this artist takes her up on the offer, the novel teeters on the predicable trope problems, and stays there a while. The rest of the monologue plays with layers; and also with and against the expected tropes.

There is a lot here within these thoughts. She looks at gender roles and constraints, privilege, relationships, the difficultly of communication, art, identity, and into what makes a meaningful moment, and none of this directly. It's built in, the monologue inward looking, cutting in several different ways. It's quite a style and quite a novel.

If you like that first line, give this one try.

https://www.librarything.com/topic/341027#7838541 ( )
1 vote dchaikin | May 15, 2022 |
Boring, at least it was only 6 hours (audible). Except for Tony the rest of the characters were absolutely ghastly. How did this ever get on a Booker list? ( )
  bergs47 | Apr 4, 2022 |
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I once told you, Jeffers, about the time I met the devil on a train leaving Paris, and about how after that meeting the evil that usually lies undisturbed beneath the surface of things rose up and disgorged itself over every part of life.
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"From the author of the Outline trilogy, a fable of human destiny and decline, enacted in a closed system of intimate, fractured relationships"--

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A woman invites a famed artist to visit the remote coastal region where she lives, in the belief that his vision will penetrate the mystery of her life and landscape. Over the course of one hot summer, his provocative presence provides the frame for a study of female fate and male privilege, of the geometries of human relationships, and of the struggle to live morally between our internal and external worlds. With its examination of the possibility that art can both save and destroy us, Second Place is deeply affirming of the human soul, while grappling with its darkest demons.
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