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Second Place


Second Place

In Martin Scorsese’s film, Life Lessons, there is a scene that captures completely how I feel about Rachel Cusk’s writing. A famous artist who is holding court at his exhibition is surrounded by fans too shy to go up and speak to him, except for one guy (played by the screenwriter Richard Price). He approaches the artist and puts out his hand. As the artist accepts his virulent handshake, the fan exclaims, “When I see you work, it just makes me want to go home and divorce my wife.” That’s what I would say to Rachel Cusk. Her work makes me want to give up everything else in my life and work harder on my own writing because her prose is to die for. In my mind, she is a perfect writer, like Joan Didion or Toni Morrison.

"It is a romance, a thriller, a memoir, a piece of fiction that is unlike anything else you’ve ever read, and very much a showcase for the magnificent work of the bright and bold Rachel Cusk."

SECOND PLACE --- which is about art and artists, marriage and self-worth, motherhood and solemnity, truth and fiction, and everything in between --- is one of Cusk’s most readable, enjoyable and thought-provoking novels. She manages this trifecta with clean prose that immediately feels like you’ve been swung into an ages-old conversation with your best friend. The protagonist, whose name we don’t even know, offers her cottage at her summer home to a famous artist, who accepts and shows up filled with contempt, showmanship and a very young girlfriend. He launches her husband, her daughter, her daughter’s boyfriend and, of course, herself into a strange summer in which the truths about their lives take dips and spins unprecedented in their halcyon environment.

The artist, who is referred to only as L, becomes a black mirror for our protagonist, who examines her life with her family and her ambitions against the philosophies and ideas that eventually pour from this narcissistic man living in her guest house. She is of the age when one begins to question past motives and decisions, lets go of expectations and cuts herself somewhat loose from the ties that have bound her up to this time. In the lovely seaside setting of this summer paradise, she voices what for those of us in our middle age may be the most pressing and important considerations of our lives to this point. She is at the cusp of new possibilities, yet old longings and regrets crop up as she tries to decipher the puzzle that is her long-admired hero, L.

The first-person narrative is exceptional. Somehow, our protagonist is telling the story of this summer to Jeffers, a person about whom little to nothing is known. She pours out her guts to him in a most funny and conversational tone that allows us to feel as if we are inside her very tumultuous soul and brain. It is such a highly entertaining parade of exposed vulnerabilities, prejudices, envies and celebrations that it is hard to put the book down. And, regardless of the title and the significance it takes on during the course of the story, this is first and foremost a modern novel that seems like the work of Virginia Woolf’s great grandchild.

SECOND PLACE is more than a great summer read, although it easily could be consumed during a beach vacation on a lounge chair between swims. It is a romance, a thriller, a memoir, a piece of fiction that is unlike anything else you’ve ever read, and very much a showcase for the magnificent work of the bright and bold Rachel Cusk. Read it once for fun and again to underline all the quotes that relate to your own life. Then read it a third time just because you can. It is not often in this world of millennial novels that a grown woman with experience gets to voice a singular piece of literary fiction like this one. No matter what age you are, this book will sear its way into your soul.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on May 22, 2021

Second Place
by Rachel Cusk

  • Publication Date: April 19, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 1250838681
  • ISBN-13: 9781250838681