Tonie Swann and Thomas Bradshaw live in a lovely suburban land filled with pretty houses, pretty people, pretty cars, and the scent of success wafting about on the dense British air. When Tonie accepts a high-powered administrative job, Thomas decides to stay home, sampling a more artistic life that definitely agrees with him. Tonie’s more fast-paced lifestyle also agrees with her, but she worries that it may not be the best transition for the couple’s daughter Alexa, now being looked after by her stay-at-home dad.
Rachel Cusk, the provocative novelist responsible for the artfully lacerating look at suburbia in ARLINGTON PARK, again takes pointed but thoughtful shots at the world of the in-betweens --- those struggling with doing the right thing for their kids, their social set and their careers, while trying hard not to fall for the falsehoods that adult life has offered other generations but not always successfully. This is Cusk’s milieu --- the changing face of the modern family --- and THE BRADSHAW VARIATIONS casts new aspersions on the upwardly mobile and fragile members of a family unit.
Cusk has an arsenal filled with $5 college words and a wide array of flawed characters. The suburb her people inhabit could be the same anywhere in the world, in any metropolitan area where people are beckoned to the outskirts by the promise of land on which to race dirtbikes that hurt your child or space from which your very expensive automobile can be viewed and envied by others. Cusk doesn’t know how to do warm and fuzzy --- every time the families of Tonie and Thomas get together with them, it is as far from happy and peppy as possible. But the real drama --- the real interest in the novel, as engaging as the outer ring of characters are --- is the story of how Tonie and Thomas get through their year of living, if not dangerously, then differently.
It’s not always fun to read Cusk’s work --- she doesn’t give anybody the benefit of the doubt and never shields her characters or her readers from the reality that is being played out in her drama. Like Virginia Woolf, Cusk is able to dissect her dramatic situations with a literary scalpel, with direct and specific language, conveying emotions that most of us would be frightened to admit to but that carry all the relevancy and import of our real-life decisions. She makes us worry about Tonie and Thomas, even though she gives us enough ammunition with which to hate them. It’s a great idea, helping us to form alliances with them even while their reality is painful to us as much as it is to them.
THE BRADSHAW VARIATIONS is yet another in a long line of fascinating pieces of prose from a truly intelligent and interesting writer. This is perhaps Rachel Cusk’s tour de force --- and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next to top it.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on December 22, 2010
The Bradshaw Variations