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Second Place (2021)

by Rachel Cusk

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2351591,730 (3.87)1 / 40
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Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
There is so much compressed into 180 pages, I hardly know where to begin to do justice. The main character "M" encounters the work of the artist "L" in a Paris gallery hours before departing on a train (to I forget where, somewhere in Europe) where she is followed from car to car by a leering man with a small child. M is in Paris on her own, taking a brief sabbatical from her marriage and small child, Justine. "L"s work connects her to a vision of what true freedom might be like. The combination of the paintings and the experience on the train propel her from passively accepting to actively demanding the freedom of choosing how to be in the world, but her decision destroys her marriage and for several years her own connection with her child.

Many years later M, married again, invites the artist L to come to where she lives now, by the marshes (somewhere like Norfolk) not far from the sea to stay in 'the second place' a formerly derelict cottage that she, with her second husband, Tony, have refurbished. M's marriage to Tony, is good, really good. (Really!) He farms and is grounded as a person. After delay (of years) L arrives with a young woman in tow. It is during the time we are still in, the first year of Covid. M's own daughter, now in her mid-twenties is home along with her German boyfriend Karl.

L's work served as a catalyst to M before and quickly it becomes apparent that L the person is also a catalyst. It's as much in him as in his work.
The spring is unusually warm and dry. L is elusive. M is frustrated. She hardly knows what she wants from him. Nothing. Everything. He avoids her.

Early on M says, "Why do we live so painfully in our fictions? Why do we suffer so, from the things we ourselves have invented?" Watching a bird she says, "Meanwhile I just sit staring straight ahead in front of me with nothing to do. That's all I've managed as far as freedom is concerned, to get rid of the people and things I don't like. After that there isn't all that much left!" and a little further on, "I find it difficult to meet my own needs. The sight of people getting what they want, jostling and demanding things, makes me decide I would rather go without."

About L's paintings she says, that they exude a sense of freedom, "this aura of male freedom belongs likewise to most representations of the world and of our human experience within it. and that, as women we grow accustomed to translating it into something we can recognize." -- "a case of borrowed finery."

Of clothes she says, "I was presumably dressed as I always am, in either black or white." "I like to wear soft, draping, shapeless clothes which I can add or remove in layers . . I have never understood clothes terribly well, and have found the element of choice especially unmanageable, so it was a great day for me when I realized . . . that by limiting the colours to black and white I need never think about aesthetics again."

The implication is, in a way, that a woman can only experience freedom by choosing to do empty out, to do and be nothing. Or, that is the route M has taken.

M writes movingly of being a mother. She writes of a time when her daughter was thirteen and asked her what were the limits of her obligations to her. She says, "I believe I am obliged to let you go," I said, once I'd thought about it, "but if that doesn't work out, I believe I am obliged to remain responsible for you forever."

of writing (she is a writer herself, very occasionally) "Some people write simply because they don't know how to live in the moment . . . and have to reconstruct it and live in it afterwards."

She writes too of some moments in her marriage with Tony when she realizes how differently they see and feel almost everything. When she explains to Tony of her misgivings about calling their cottage 'the second place' she says the term "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 always and forever somehow denied me, by a force that I could only describe as the force of pre-eminence. I could hever 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." She goes on to say, "Tony listened to me, and I could tell he was slightly surprised by what I was saying . . and after a long time he said, "For me it doesn't mean that. It means parallel world. Alternative reality."

This woman may appear to do nothing, (you might find her annoying, but then you would find me annoying too) but what she does do is observe and think about the impossible and the forbidden: the possibility that art is both dangerous and completely pointless, to the likelihood that men, being men, even the best of them, cannot begin to comprehend what women's lives are made of, that the surest love for a woman is with her children.

At the very end, unnecessarily perhaps? Cusk reveals that the novel was inspired by the memoir of Mabel Mapes Dodge of D.H. Lawrence's time at her home in Taos. Jeffers, then, is Robinson Jeffers the poet. Not sure what I think about this. Does it add or subtract? I guess I'll have to read [Lorenzo in Taos] to decide. I am not a big Lawrence fan, but I have gleaned that he was just such a person as L, a force of nature.

Sorry this is so long, I am just stunned by Cusk's perceptiveness and courage about women, men, the human condition, art, you name it. ***** ( )
1 vote sibylline | Dec 7, 2021 |
This is a fascinating work. I don’t quite have the words to describe it, but I feel like I am existing inside it, feeling the characters. The writing feels like there is all this space that allows you inside the story. While you aren’t exactly interacting with the characters, you’re up close and witnessing the story personally. Most of the time, it was like I was with my late wife and we were telling each other different things about what is happening in the book, just so neither of us would miss anything. I’m already planning to read the book again. It may be my state of mind, but this seems like a very unique experience.

I finished this book under a lemon tree, and it was spectacular! It’s not even 200 pages of a small format book, but I think I took more notes than something two or three times as long. There are a few special books that I so want to know what Vicky would have thought of them, which is a frustratingly sad position to find myself in after decades of doing just that constantly. The plot is about relationships, the art world, place, family, and love. How do we fall in love? How does it age over the years? This was my favorite book in quite some time. I even got to read some of it while listening to Austin City Limits best of John Prine.

[I will return and write more once I’ve pondered this book some more.] ( )
  jphamilton | Sep 30, 2021 |
Perhaps if I had read Cusk's final note at the beginning, not the end, I would not have been so irritated at the intrusion of "Jeffers" every other page or so, but I doubt it. To me it was an unnecessary literary device that inserted itself, almost violently, between me and Cusk's masterful, gorgeous voice.

The Outline trilogy was much less mannered, and thus to me much more enjoyable.

But still 4 stars, for her writing. ( )
  bobbieharv | Sep 10, 2021 |
This stunning tale has layers and layers of meaning, but for me it’s ultimately a story about loneliness and the need to be seen. I love that not only is the language in this slim novel beautiful, but the novel has remarkable depth. The two don’t always go hand in hand, unfortunately! This is my first book by this author, and I’m now excited to read her other work. ( )
  lucylove73 | Aug 31, 2021 |
When this book first came out several months ago I read a review where the reviewer compared Cusk's writing to Anita Brookner. Uhhh....no. Not even close. Brookner's long, luscious prose was nowhere to be found. At least from this reader's perspective and after all, I have become somewhat of an expert. But that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy this very introspective novel about a woman whose innermost thoughts consume most of the narrative.

M and her second husband Tony, live in a house adjacent to a marsh where they built a "second place" that they use for guests who come and go. M writes a letter to L, an artist whose work she saw in Paris and fell in love with, and he decides to come and stay with his friend Brett. M's daughter Justine and her husband Kent are staying with M and Tony at this time. The interactions among these people provide the only action in the story as there's no plot really.

The narrative is told through a letter that M writes to a friend, Jeffers and although there are six characters, it's really M's story about her relationship with L, who is one of the most obnoxious and misogynistic men I've ever encountered in literature.

"While he spoke, a feeling had been growing inside me, of the most abject rejection and abandonment, because what I understood him to be saying underneath all his explanations was that my used-up female body was disgusting to him, and that this was the reason he kept me at a distance, even to the point of being unable to sit next to me."

Ugh. And yet he somehow allows M to face her inner demons by forcing her to accept her role as a woman and a mother, mending her relationship with her daughter.

At the end of the book, Cusk notes that the novel owes a debt to Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan's 1932 memoir of the time D.H. Lawrence came to stay with her in Taos, New Mexico. And of course I'm going to have to find that book and read it now. ( )
  brenzi | Aug 30, 2021 |
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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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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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