A haunting fable of art, family, and fate from the author of the Outline trilogy.
A woman invites a famous artist to use her guesthouse in the remote coastal landscape where she lives with her family. Powerfully drawn to his paintings, she believes his vision might penetrate the mystery at the center of her life. But as a long, dry summer sets in, his provocative presence itself becomes an enigma—and disrupts the calm of her secluded household.
Second Place, Rachel Cusk’s electrifying new novel, is a study of female fate and male privilege, the geometries of human relationships, and the moral questions that animate our lives. It reminds us of art’s capacity to uplift—and to destroy.
About the Author
Rachel Cusk is the author of the Outline trilogy, the memoirs A Life’s Work and Aftermath, and several other works of fiction and nonfiction. She is a Guggenheim fellow. She lives in Paris.
Named a Most Anticipated Book of 2021 by: Buzzfeed, Vogue, O, Elle, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, BookPage, The Millions, Lit Hub, The Seattle Times, Esquire, New Statesman, Paperback Paris, The Week, Town and Country
“Her genius is that in deliberately blurring a boundary of her own – that between a writer and her subject, between the expectation of autobiography so often attached to writing by women, and the carapace of pure invention so often unthinkably afforded to men – she tricks us into believing that her preoccupations and failings, her privileges and apparent assumptions, are not our own. By the time we realize what has happened, it is too late: our own surface has been disturbed, our own complacent compartment dismantled. It is a shock, but as the narrator of Second Place reminds us, 'shock is sometimes necessary, for without it we would drift into entropy.' Cusk is necessary too – deeply so, and Second Place, exquisite in the cruelty of its rightness, reminds us why.”
—Sam Byers, The Guardian
“Second Place shows the freedoms of art to be ambiguous and often entirely arbitrary. They are the results not of visionary inspiration but of practice, patience and the dullness of repetition. ‘The rigorously trained fingers of the concert pianist,’ the narrator says in a moment of perceptiveness, ‘are freer than the enslaved heart of the music-lover can ever be.’ It’s a sentiment that helps understand the tragedy of this book, as well as the monumental achievement of Cusk’s recent novels, which possess a hard-won freedom and a glittering brilliance which could only be achieved after long and rigorous training.”
—Jon Day, Financial Times
"The novel’s electric charge comes from the asymmetric relationship between L and M. L’s artistic genius is connected, like Satan’s, to his claims of absolute freedom . . . A sharp feeling of estrangement is crucial to Ms. Cusk’s fictions. The writing, so heightened and epigrammatic, seems almost to mock the homespun fashions of traditional realist prose. Its beauties are glittering and mirrored in the way of razor wire: Artistic truth, in her books, is always a savage thing."
—Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
"In this book more than ever, Cusk is astringent, unsugared. Straight vinegar. It’s delicious and good for the gut . . . Cusk’s open experimentation is refreshing, as is her belief that a writer must keep moving forward, forging a rough chain."
—Hillary Kelly, Los Angeles Times
"The book is an atmospheric, a mood piece, a drug . . . Instead of passivity, we get velocity; M flings herself desperately into her own drama . . . [Cusk's] sentences grow hypnotic. M is preoccupied by L, thinking incessantly about the painter who shies away from her admiration. She is desperate to be part of his vision . . . An exploration of how dangerous it is to want to see yourself reflected in the artist’s eye."
—Helen Shaw, New York
“A friend once described a Cusk novel—2014’s Outline—as a glass of Sancerre: very dry, very cold, totally perfect. To (perilously) extend this metaphor let’s call Cusk’s new novel Second Place a weird wonderful glass of orange wine, unfiltered, even funky . . . Second Place is about how to survive the perils of middle age, how to find both security and freedom in equal measure, and how human longing shades, all too easily, into self-destruction.”
—Vogue (Most Anticipated)
“Cusk, a virtuoso of our interior lives and the author of the renowned Outline Trilogy, here spins a captivating, compulsively readable tale—part confession, part allegory—that unflinchingly peers into the crevices of relationships.”
—O, the Oprah Magazine (Most Anticipated)
“You know when you’re reading a page of Rachel Cusk’s fiction. Her narrators tug insistently if coolly at the central knots of being. They analyze every emotion as if it were freshly invented. Nothing is extraneous . . . [Second Place] has a swirling hothouse quality that’s new. It’s as if Cusk has been reading Joyce Carol Oates’s best novels. She digs into the gothic core of family and romantic entanglements . . . It is not a novel that gladdens the soul. But gladdening the soul has never been Cusk’s project.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“The plot is simple, but the way it unfolds is as nuanced as ever, narrated in M’s second person to someone offstage. As with Cusk’s Outline trilogy, it takes seriously the complex emotional geometries between ordinary people. Second Place is a deeply philosophical book about what happens when you confuse art with life.”
—Vulture (Most Anticipated)
“The visionary writer of the Outline trilogy returns with a new novel about M, a middle-aged writer who invites a famed painter to the remote home she shares with her second husband, hoping that he might capture the marshy landscape on his canvas . . . Written in Cusk’s unmistakable style, longtime fans will rejoice, while first-timers will surely become Cusk converts.”
—Esquire (Best Books of Spring)
"Cusk’s intelligent, sparkling return (after Kudos) centers on a woman in crisis . . . There is the erudition of the author’s Outline trilogy here, but with a tightly contained dramatic narrative. It’s a novel that feels timeless, while dealing with ferocious modern questions."
—Publishers' Weekly (starred review)
"Highly praised for her recent, decidedly nonlinear Outline Trilogy, Cusk here rediscovers the joys of plot . . . Brilliant prose and piercing insights convey a dark but compelling view of human nature."
—Kirkus (starred review)
"Once again, Cusk (the “Outline” trilogy) delivers a novel so thorny with ideas that every sentence merits a careful reading, yet crafted in language as ringingly clear as fine crystal . . . A gorgeously sculpted story of living and learning; for all readers."
—Library Journal (starred review)