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Second Place

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Rachel Cusk just has such a fresh new way with words!
I loved the topic and conversations about love and art and nature.

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A short but rather powerful novel, despite being quite heavy on abstract notions. The devil is invoked early on and then perhaps comes to inspirit an artist who arrives as a guest on the narrator’s property and stays to cause multiple varieties of damage. The narrator herself is a tough-minded woman and a memorable presence, despite her flaws. This is strong work, with much packed punchily into its length.

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I really wanted to like this book but it went right over my head. I couldn’t connect with it and I found it a difficult, unengaging read. Not for me, sorry.

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<blockquote>I considered the possibility that art — not just L's art but the whole notion of art — might itself be a serpent, whispering in our ears, sapping away all our satisfaction and our belief in the things of this world with the idea that there was something higher and better within us which could be equalled by what was right in front of us. The distance of art suddenly felt like nothing but the distance in myself, the coldest, loneliest distance in the world from true love and belonging.<,blockquote>

Second Place, by Rachel Cusk, is a book I like more now in hindsight than I did while reading it. The story is uncomfortable and frustrating, with unlikeable characters and unclear motivations. Too much like real life, perhaps, for me to see its artfulness up close.

<blockquote>Some people write simply because they don't know how to live in the moment, I said, and have to reconstruct it and live in it afterwards.</blockquote>

[This describes my relationship to living, and moments, and writing and reading, quite accurately.]

The narrator, M, a writer of books that no one seems to have much regard for, hosts something like an artist's retreat, wherein the artist is obliged for her hospitality and she can leech off their creativity. M's voice is very much like Faye's, the writer in the Outline Trilogy, but here's the thing: I don't much like M. I get the feeling nobody does. Faye, however, wasn't much more than an outline, given shape by the stories of the people surrounding her. M has more solidity — filled in, but with dark unpleasantness.

So M invites this artist, L, to stay; she's in love with L, or his art, or both, it's hard to tell. After a long while L finally agrees to come, but he brings a woman with him, which M clearly didn't bargain for, and there's less artistic inspiration about the visit than financial desperation — L is out of style and down on his luck.

<blockquote>What interested him was his suspicion not that he might have missed out on something, but that he had failed entirely to see something else, something that had ultimately to do with reality and with a definition of reality as a place where he himself did not exist.</blockquote>

M is genuine in her regard for L's art and her wish to commune with him, to understand his vision and and process.

<blockquote>It took L's painting to make me really see it. I saw, in other words, that I was alone, and saw the gift and the burden of that state, which had never truly been revealed to me before.</blockquote>

She feels failed, and frustrated, and aging. (But maybe I'm projecting.) She doesn't feel valued, as an artist or a patron. (But maybe I'm projecting.) She believes that the truth is an absolute thing that exists outside of us, and it is art's purpose to capture it.

<blockquote>I am interested in the existence of things before our knowledge of them — partly because I have trouble believing that they do exist! If you have always been criticised, from before you can remember, it becomes more or less impossible to locate yourself in the time or space before the criticism was made: to believe, in other words, that you yourself exist. The criticism is more real than you are: it seems, in fact, to have created you. I believe a lot of people walk around with this problem in their heads, and it leads to all kinds of trouble – in my case, it led to my body and my mind getting divorced from each other right at the start, when I was only a few years old. But my point is that there’s something that paintings and other created objects can do to give you some relief. They give you a location, a place to be, when the rest of the time the space has been taken up because the criticism got there first. I don’t include things created out of words, though: at least for me they don’t have the same effect, because they have to pass through my mind to get to me. My appreciation of words has to be mental. </blockquote>

She rages at L's dismissal of her. She's clearly had to struggle to be a mother and an artist, simply to be a woman in a body and with an aspiration. L, of course, embodies male white privilege.

Things go wrong, and then they go wrong again, and again, and somewhere in the middle of it art happens and we're somewhat in awe of it even though it bites, it's terrifying, maybe this is some kind of truth. And most of us come out of it as better people.

<blockquote>There's a certain point in life at which you realise it's no longer interesting that time goes forward — or rather, that its forward-going-ness has been the central plank of life's illusion, and that while you were waiting to see what was going to happen next, you were steadily being robbed of all you had. Language is the only thing capable of stopping the flow of time, because it exists in time, is made of time, yet it is eternal — or can be.</blockquote>

[The whole story is addressed to someone named Jeffers. This is a reference to a 1930s memoir of an arts patron who wrote about DH Lawrence's stay at her colony. If you don't know the story, then the construct of Jeffers doesn't make sense — it's unnecessary and an unfortunate distraction.]

<blockquote>The human capacity for receptivity is a kind of birthright, an asset given to us in the moment of our creation by which we are intended to regulate the currency of our souls. Unless we give back to life as much as we take from it, this faculty will fail us sooner or later. My difficulty, I saw then, had always lain in finding a way to give back all the impressions I had received, to render an account to a god who had never come and never come, despite my desire to surrender everything that was inside me. Yet even so my receptive faculty had not, for some reason, failed me: I had remained a devourer while yearning to become a creator.</blockquote>

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"... and it struck me, Jeffers, how the human capacity for receptivity is a kind of birthright, an asset given to us in the moment of our creation by which we are intended to regulate the currency of our souls. Unless we give back to life as much as we take from it, this faculty will fail us sooner or later. My difficulty, I saw then, had always lain in finding a way to give back all the impressions I had received, to render an account to a god who had never come despite my desire to surrender everything that was stored inside me. Yet even so my receptive faculty had not, for some reason, failed me: I had remained a devourer while yearning to become a creator, and I saw that I had summoned L across the continents intuitively believing that he could perform that transformative function for me, could release me into creative action. Well, he had obeyed, and apparently nothing significant had come of it, beyond the momentary flashes of insight between us that had been interspersed by so many hours of frustration and blankness and pain." One of the most challenging Cusk novels yet.

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I really enjoyed the magical portion of this novel. I too, felt like I was drawn into the paintings and art. I was right there with the main character, feeling the mystifying art. Deserves all the praise that it is getting.

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Cusk's writing is beautiful as always but I'm starting to see a trend towards style over substance which is probably guided in large part by writing programs. I decided to not give feedback for this title since I didn't finish it but then I realized that was probably important in and of itself. As I said, the writing was gorgeous but I didn't find anything to hold onto or sink my teeth into. I didn't get attached to anyone or anything in this novel, even as I enjoyed the aesthetics of the sentences. I couldn't keep being attentive though and noticed that my eyes were just kind of skipping around the page.

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I loved this, felt like a qualitative leap from the Outline trilogy (with a much more complex narrator who felt more like "part of the action"). Will be purchasing and rereading.

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Adored this book! I found it challenging and immensely thought-provoking in its exploration of art and identity, and how we frame ourselves against others in our lives. Cusk is supremely talented at exploring the minutiae of life and pondering big ideas through the mundane. I plan to read everything she has written! Glad to see this one on the Booker longlist this year.

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This is the first book I’ve read by Rachel Cusk so while I wasn’t sure what to expect, I was still interested. And I loved it. If I was explaining it, it really doesn’t seem like *much* happens. But the details, nuance, hidden meanings abs spectacular writing that I highlighted a ton from make it.

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Second Place was my introduction to Rachel Cusk. I quickly became engrossed in the story and wondered why I had expected her writing to be impenetrable. Where had this impression come from? Other readers? Reviews? Her regular appearance on literature award lists? Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised – no, relieved – to find Second Place highly ‘readable’. No persistence required.

In summary, the story is about our narrator, ‘M’, who invites a famed artist, known as ‘L’, to stay in a cottage on her property in a remote coastal region, in the hope that his artistic vision will penetrate her own life and sense of unrest. M’s husband, Tony, offers little resistance to this plan, although he is not particularly enthusiastic about having a guest because also visiting is M’s adult daughter and her boyfriend.

L accepts the invitation, and arrives with a female companion, Brett, which immediately upsets M’s plans for the summer.

I will not attempt to untangle, or even touch on, all of the themes in this book. It’s loaded with commentary about male privilege, social hierarchy, artistic temperament, the role of the muse and the benefactor, parent-child relationships, isolation, and the disconnection between our internal and external worlds. I suspect that you could read this relatively compact novel (186pp) over and over, each time through a different lens, and find new things to say about it.

Change is also loss, and in that sense a parent can lose a child every day, until you realise that you’d better stop predicting what they’re going to become and concentrate on what is right in front of you.

But one theme stood out for me – the ‘redundancy’ of the middle-aged woman. M immediately made me think of the characters in Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend – as with Wood’s characters, there was a distinct sense of ‘what next’ for M. She considers her ‘mothering’ done, and her life with Tony, her second husband, is content but she recognises that in coming together later in life, they do not share the intimacy provided by a long history. We learn that M has her own creative ambitions, but has not been afforded the time, space or privilege to explore them.

…as I’ve told you I’ve been criticised all my life: it’s how I’ve come to know that I’m there.

What feelings did M evoke in me? I was uncomfortable about her invitation to L because it seemed doomed from the outset – her expectations, although not fully articulated where impossible to fulfill. Additionally, why would L accept the invitation for any reason other than a summer of free rent, with the added bonus of having a fan (redundant female) fawning over him? And M’s predictable envious reaction to Brett? Oh, I see what you did there Cusk, set me up to expect and assume the same of M, as we do for middle-aged women more generally. Clever.

Fear is a habit like any other, and habits kill what is essential in ourselves.

I won’t say more, other than the ending was fitting and re-framed ‘redundancy’ in a remarkable way. And because there was no obvious place to include this, I’ll finish with this interesting quote. Thoughts?

“I’ve often thought it’s fathers who make painters,” he said, “while writers come from their mothers.”
I asked him why he thought that.
“Mothers are such liars,” he said. “Language is all they have. They fill you up with language if you let them.”

3.5/5 I’ll read more Cusk.

I received my copy of Second Place from the publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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I loved the outline triology and was really all I had read by Cusk. Second place was a really interesting and captivating read. What I loved most about Second place was how challenging and smart it was to read and the unreliability of the narration. It is the perfect book to publish after outline and perhaps as literary as a novel can get. Completely worthy of the booker nomination. I will read anything Cusk publishes. 5/5

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My first Cusk and it did not disappoint!! I wasn't sure if Cusk would be for me but I love what this had to say on being a women and making art and I love how wonderfully strange this was. Will definitely be revisiting again soon. Worth all the buzz.

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M is a middle-aged woman, a writer with some small success. She is living with her second husband, Tony, in the marshes of England in a remote location and her daughter has recently moved back home as well. Surrounded by family, M should be happy but she feels that she is cut out for a more artistic life and that she needs inspiration. While Tony was clearing their land, he finds a cottage which the couple sets up as their 'second place', somewhere they can invite guests.
M had admired the paintings of L, an artist who had been quite famous at one time but had now fallen into obscurity. She invites him to come stay with them and is delighted when he agrees. She imagines long talks with him and that his work will be reimagined and vibrant once more due to their location. She sees herself as a patroness of the arts.

The first clue that things will not work out is on L's arrival. Instead of coming alone, he arrives with a young woman with whom it is obvious he has a relationship. It is obvious that the couple think little of M and Tony, believing more that they are gracing them with their company rather than feeling any gratitude. L is interested in painting Tony and M's daughter but has no interest in M and seems to avoid her as much as possible. This sets the stage for conflict between M and L, and between M and Tony as he tries to put his foot down on her behaviour.

This book has been nominated for the 2021 Booker Prize. Rachel Cusk has a long history of writing awards including the Whitbread Award for First Novel and nominations for the Orange Prize, the Bailey Prize, the Giller Prize and others. In this work, she explores the feelings of a middle-aged woman, someone whose first age of beauty has passed and who is working out what the rest of her life will be. M is someone the reader will want to shake. Her husband is caring and loving, his only thoughts to watch over her and protect her but M almost ignores him in her quest to become important to another man and to fulfill her expectations of being a patron of the arts. Similarly, she isn't sure how to relate to her daughter and M's self-image can only be filtered through the thoughts and actions of those around her. This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

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Second Place by Rachel Cusk
I come to Rachel Cusk’s latest novel, Second Place, from my enjoyment and admiration of her other recent works. There is, of course, the Trilogy set of novels, for which is so well known now, consisting of Outline, Transit and Kudos (published from 2014 to 2018).
In these novels, Cusk dispenses with plot. Instead we have Faye, a writer, and unnamed until almost the end of the first novel, who is a repository for other people’s stories. She relates what people tell her as she moves through the novels – from teaching writing in Greece in the first, Outline – to remodelling her house in Transit.
This novel-telling device is unique, touching on the original meaning of the word, ‘novel’ as something new. Faye’s voice is cool, crisp and detached, as she relates other people’s stories, and the form is strangely beguiling to read. Cusk certainly turned the novel-writing genre around by imagining this set of stories.
I also come to Cusk via her non-fiction, the brilliant memoir of her divorce, Aftermath (2012) which tells the story of a shattering divorce in tones that veer from desperate to puzzled to iciness. I have also read her essays in Gone to Coventry and an account of a summer in Italy with her family in The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy.
I was looking forward to reading Second Place, I expected to be beguiled and transported, as I was with the Trilogy.
Second Place, however, is an entirely different sort of read.
It is set along the coast, along marshland, and perhaps it is set in England. We are never sure. However, the marsh exerts a strange pull on the main characters, M and L, and becomes character in its own right. M, the female protagonist, is relating what happened the summer that she invited L, a famous painter to stay. She is addressing someone called, Jeffers, in what is, presumably, a long letter; again, we are never entirely sure.
M is married to a kind, second husband, Tony, whose land it is. They have a ‘second place’ where artists and other creatives are invited to stay, and M decides to ask L to stay. He is a middle-aged, famous, wealthy artist, and he accepts the invitation to stay in what is described as a humble place. He comes with Brett, a bright young and rich twentysomething. It’s unclear what the nature of the relationship is. Brett becomes friends with M’s daughter, the young adult Justine, who in turn, is pandering to her boyfriend, Kurt, who wields a strange magnetism over Justine. She runs to do his bidding, to keep him happy, something her mother, M, can only watch and judge.
But the real action, and I use that word loosely, centres on M’s desire to be friendly with L, the artist who remains aloof to her friendliness and her need. They barely meet, L keeps his distance, and what meetings there are, are fraught on M’s part. Instead this is the story of what happens that summer, M’s obsession with L, and her desperate need to both befriend him, to be liked by him, to be painted by him. L is coolly and cruelly dismissive of her. He paints everyone else and complains that he has run out of subjects to paint, ignoring M’s plea that he paint her. It is only when he gives in to M’s demand that all hell breaks loose, and the novel reaches a dramatic crescendo.
We are given fragments of hints as to who M is – a writer of little books, a second wife, a woman who is not comfortable in her femininity, a woman who needs to be validated by a cruel artist. And cruel L is, with his barely disguised disgust at M. His own fame melting away, his fortune with it. It is ironic that the two main characters are ones whose full names we never know. It is only those who orbit the unlikely duo who are named, and by so naming assume a dimension that isn’t present in the M and L, who despite taking centre stage, remain somewhat hazy by their lack of names. And yet, we also learn a lot about M and L: L’s tortured, unhappy childhood, M’s year when her husband took her child away and would not let her see Justine. So each are made and shaped by these and other events.
But this is not simply a novel about what happens over a summer in which people crash in and out of each other’s lives, as they do. This is also a novel that explores the nature of art, L is after all an artist, as is M, in her small way. And Cusk layers her narration with questions and observations about the value of art. Here is M considering the oft-discussed question of whether it is necessary to know the biographical details of an artist:
‘To put it another way, does the purpose of art extend to the artist himself as a living being? I believe it does, though there’s a certain shame in biographical explanations, as though it’s somehow weak-minded to look for the meaning of a created work in the life and character of the person who created it. But perhaps that shame is merely the evidence of a more general cultural condition of denial or repression, with which the artist himself is very often tempted to become complicit.’
In a later passage M again considers the value – or not – of art:
‘For the first time, Jeffers, I considered the possibility that art – not just L’s art but the whole notion of art – might itself be a serpent, whispering in our ears, sapping away all our satisfaction and our belief in the things of this world with the idea that there was something higher and better within us which could never be equalled by what was right in front of us.’
And then she disparages the profession of writing, her own art: ‘Some people write simply because they don’t know how to live in the moment, I said, and have to reconstruct it and live in it afterwards.’
Art, clearly, is not salvation, in this novel, although the two main characters have a hand in creating something beyond themselves. This questioning of its value is a glowing red theme throughout Second Place, and much of the discourse around the value, or otherwise, of the creative process, makes for thought-provoking reading.
The novel owes a debt to the Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir, Lorenzo in Texas, which describes the time DH Lawrence came to stay with her in Taos.
This is not an easy read – it is hard to empathise with the cruel L, so intent on destruction, or M. Early on Kurt, Justine’s boyfriend, tells M that L says, ‘he intends to destroy you’. Meanwhile, M, with her neediness, comes across as reed-thin, physically and emotionally. And then there is the marsh, a waiting, watching, almost threatening part of the physical landscape; even here, we feel, there are barbs waiting for us.

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Excellent (and both very funny and excruciating) portrait of a visiting artist and his (at least initially) reverential host. While I preferred the author's superb recent trilogy, this was an intriguing and absorbing change of direction. Highly recommended.

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This is a captivating novel starting from the very first paragraph. It's in form of a woman's writings addressed to one Jeffers. She (M) mentions about inviting L, a painter, to the faraway place where she and her husband live in their land near a marsh. They are a self-sufficient couple, living on their own except occasional visitors.
Without any chronological order, M writes Jeffers about her new life, her husband's character, struggles of her younger self which still continue to hunt her, the relationship with her estranged daughter, and how she discovered L's art and how deeply it affected her.
Rhythm of the novel makes the reader feel the loneliness of the narrator, living in an empty routine day by day in wilderness. But her quiet life changes with the arrival of L in an unexpected way. Her insecurities and past injuries start to surface and make her question her place as a wife, as a lover, as a mother, and as a fan of L's art, but most of all, as a woman on her own.
In less than 200 pages, this book certainly gives the reader some food for thought. I re-read some paragraphs a couple of times, and made notes to think them over as they seem too big to swallow at the time of reading. A few examples to such topics are as follows: our subjective and limited views on ourselves (and others), pitfalls from early lives, bonding with others in isolated living, the power of art that speaks to us, living immoral lives to create art....
With its wonderful setting and rhythm, and challenging subjects, I think this book deserves several readings and one can explore different ideas each time..
Thanks a million to the publisher and NetGalley for the arc copy.

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This novel was actually inspired by the memoir of Mabel Dodge Luhan, a patron who played host to D.H. Lawrence in Taos, New Mexico, in 1932.

M, is middle aged, is married to a man, Tony. M also has a daughter, Justine from her first marriage. M invites a famous artist L to stay at her guest house called "The Second Place".
M is an anxious person who is constantly struggling with her own existence as a girl, woman, wife, mother. Her complex relations with her husband & daughter. Her own feeling of emptiness while she is actually having people who care and things that are needed.

It is a complex novel. A woman's point of view. Dream like and yet profound. Does every woman go through these thoughts in their lifetime? Will I ?

I enjoyed this quiet novel.

Thank you NetGalley for the ARC in exchange of unbiased and honest review.

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Thank you to both #NetGalley and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux for providing me an advance copy of Rachel Cusk’s latest fiction novel, Second Place, in exchange for an honest review.

I fell in love with Rachel Cusk’s writing after reading her Outline trilogy, and immediately jumped at the chance to read #SecondPlace when I saw she was the author. Unfortunately, the plot did not grab me in the same way as her original trilogy did. It might be the subject matter or the somewhat confusing format, but I do intend to continue reading her future novels because she is still undoubtedly a brilliant author.

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I've never read any Cusk before, and I've never read ANYTHING like Second Place. This was weird yet incredible. I think some of it went over my head. I would like to read more by her and revisit this to immerse myself further. This strange little novel really captivated me.

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