on 25 February 2012
Rachel Cusk is a good writer. However, I am afraid I was disappointed by this book which I finished today. As someone divorced with children I had hoped to read the insights one finds in her meatier earlier Life's Work - on Becoming a Mother. I was disappointed.
First it is far too short. It did not feel like value for money.
Secondly it felt rushed as if she needed the money (due to the divorce), did not have much time as she was wasting money and time she did not have on pointless therapy and so had thrown together some random musings interspersed with a lot of Greek myth tales which did not then hang well together. None of the details one might really want about the whys and wherefores of her divorce were there presumably on grounds of privacy.
All those who want fairness for men and women would be deeply unhappy with a woman who has had a relationship where a father is fully engaged as a carer of the children and is them somehow to be supplanted, simply because there is a divorce or even if not supplanted that a fair division is resented. We need to think about how we can give, not what we can take in life and that giving might involve letting our children have less of us. We all accept when we earn more than our men that that means we pay out to them on divorce (many many of us have done it) and that a maintenance of the status quo as regards relationships with the children follows in consequence and we celebrate that (although Ms Cusk appears not to do so).
One also is depressingly reminded that the career of a writer in effect means not much money and the consequences of that.
if the length had been about 5 times as long, the book had dared to move more into the realm of what had happened and dropped the Greek myth parts it could have worked.
May be there could be another book (of 5 times the length of this) about the subsequent dating phase. Let no one suggest Ms Cusk does not write well. She certainly does.
on 25 February 2012
Loquacious, banal and immature, this memoir reveals it's author as surprisingly lacking in awareness and empathy. Whilst there are some nicely turned phrases this book needs a serious edit to remove the dreadful meandering expanse of her pseudo intellectual posturing. This text contributes little to debates on divorce and feminisim, in fact it's really rather astonishing to read the middle-aged author's tardy and tedious feminist revelations - revelations that would, I venture, strike most women, most adults as the indulged musings of a spoilt little girl.
Read this if you enjoy your domestic dramas served dry with a large helping of self-obsessed passive-aggression. I just wish I could have my time and money back...
on 29 August 2014
I found this book gripping and whereas I usually read quickly, here I found myself wanting to slow down so as not to miss anything. There are insights in every other sentence. I liked the use of metaphor and imagery. For me it elucidated and elaborated what Cusk was saying about marriage as an institution, her own experience of marriage and it's dissolution. Certainly, Cusk's ideas resonated with me though some people may find them threatening/offensive. The book is densely written and if a simple unadorned account of a marriage breakup is what you are looking for, this book may not be for you.
on 30 April 2013
Like one or two other reviewers, I am at a loss to understand the aggressive reception given to this book - not only from Amazon reviewers, of course, but from the likes of The Guardian and the London Review of Books. There was even, I noticed, some kind of counter-feminist attempt to whip up sympathy for Rachel Cusk's much maligned ex-husband in the pages of the Telegraph. One problem with this criticism is that, for one thing, her husband is not much maligned; he is rarely mentioned, and when he is it is not in the terms claimed for the book by its commentators. She does not, for example, "complain" that he no longer cooks for their daughters, now that he is living apart, as one review claimed; she mourns the fact that he has lost interest in cooking, clearly seeing it as part of a greater loss. Elsewhere there is a beautiful passage when she feels a moment of liberation and says that she wishes she could "conscript [her ex-husband] into my own escape and re-encounter him there, in non-marriage, both of us free". It is almost as if, by drawing attention to something that is not there, critics of the book have been deliberately missing the point.
There is a moment early on, it is true, when Rachel Cusk loses focus, when she is discussing the financial arrangements around their separation and quotes the solicitor as saying that her husband "knew what he was doing". Quoting the observations of third parties in those situations is a dangerous thing to do. I remember someone saying to me, after I separated from my wife, that it was "good that you were unfaithful to her because she was so possessive". These are the kinds of unbalanced viewpoints that third parties can give, and this is where objectivity slips.
But only a perverse and wilful reading of the book could produce the many distortions presented as opinions. I admit to being suspicious of the motives of those who take such a negative view of it. My guess is that they feel threatened by the discussion of feelings that are not sanitised, trivialised or psychologised, but are given in all their physical rawness. Rachel Cusk was even criticised for mentioning the fact that she couldn't eat and had lost weight. I recognise in this the meaningless macho response, which may or may not be something to do with being English, that instead of talking about these things we should keep a stiff upper lip and muddle through. For all that the modern world pays lip service to emotional literacy, this is still a default setting for many.
At the centre of this reaction is a failure to understand the nature of sharing, which possibly comes from living in a culture when emotional exhibitionism is completely normal, although it the results are usually edited by someone like Endemol. People have hysterics on television and we laugh at them, despise them and feel vaguely sullied by the experience - and then we do it all over again the following night. This has nothing to do with sharing; it is a form of escapism, a way of maintaining a fantasy world in which "they" are emotional circus animals and "we" are perfectly rational. We have got used to phoning up to have these freaks evicted from their fake house, but we can't do this with a memoir, and the reviewers of this book sound a little frustrated on that score.
Hence the contradictory criticisms that Rachel Cusk has not spilled the beans on exactly what went wrong with her marriage and that she has been too honest, or too open or exposing. Well, it's not a book for the momentarily curious, with their insatiable hunger for gossip - that is true. I'm not sure how it would help the reader to have a breakdown of the breakdown. In my experience, the lead up to that kind of separation lacks clarity and is not easily explained, in any case. It is also true that the first chapter, which delves into the gender political causes behind the split, is by far the most obscure, and while it has an intellectual brilliance I was left uncertain as to whether she had said what she meant to say. Where the book is strongest is in bearing out those feelings of loss of prestige or status, of connection to a common reality, of continuity, which I for one recognise instantly. I also liked, a lot, the book's frequent prickliness, especially the passage worthy of D.H. Lawrence where she goes from feeling "irritated" by the sight of families to saying, "I blame Christianity".
Those who have complained about the irrelevance of Rachel Cusk's retelling of Greek myths have missed her stating explicitly on several occasions what value she finds in them. It doesn't always work, but when it does I find her search for some kind of context or framework to experience very engaging and realistic. She is not, as she points out, entirely English, and doesn't share our antipathy to philosophy - or to analysis of any kind - a difference that certainly marks her out. I remember when I first read Rachel Cusk being amazed, really, to discover a writer who was interested in ideas, had a passionate connection to the natural world and a black humour that cut against it - and who expected the reader to do some of the work. This is a book for people who don't like to be spoon fed.