The Bradshaw Variations pursues an analogy with piano, but a better parallel would be with painting. With portraiture, or still life. Told in the present, it is a succession of commentaries on the everyday. It revolves around the extended Bradshaw family, three couples plus their children and elderly parents. Each and collectively, the characters follow their routines, tube-tested and analysed by Rachel Cusk in every detail.
A two-star rating is perhaps a little grudging. The Variations do contain the odd nugget. Yet many of its observations are either commonplace or, as one pauses, not that perceptive. `At times I just wanted to punch the air in a frenzy of delighted recognition,' says the critic's quote on the jacket. I didn't want to punch anything, except myself for having bought the book, after a while. Ms Cusk might have pursued the interesting premise that Thomas Bradshaw has decided to become a househusband, while his wife Tonie has returned to work. Thomas plays the piano. His sister-in-law complains she never has time to paint. Work, leisure, creativity, structure: Ms Cusk, as a writer, might have made interesting points about them, but the premise is not developed.
Yet the problem is not so much that the Variations' approach is not interesting, it is that they only stick to a single note. The ending is a cop-out, as if something racy somehow had to be found for the conclusion. Ms Cusk's style is agreeable, but the commentary runs out of breath. And what starts out as wistful ends up becoming dull. For Variations, this is not that varied.