We’ve heard this story before: A stranger arrives, bringing trouble. The stranger leaves. Things have changed. But in Rachel Cusk’s hands, a simple plot becomes deep and mysterious, like the “distant blue shape of the receded tide.” The stranger in her eleventh novel, Second Place, is a renowned painter named L, whose arrival at the titular “second place”—a cottage for visiting artists built by the narrator, M, and her second husband, Tony—disturbs the peace on the beautiful marsh where they live. Middle-aged M is struggling with the sense that her life has “been a near miss.” She’s written a few “little books” that “hardly made any money.” Her daughter, Justine, is all grown up. Where M is restless, Tony, a day laborer, is frustratingly stubborn and good, happy to spend his time working with his hands. Her invitation to L to come and paint at the marsh is an act of resistance to his contentment. L’s paintings changed M’s life years earlier, when she saw them exhibited in a sunlit Paris gallery. At the time, she was “a young mother on the brink of rebellion,” about to divorce her first husband. The paintings gave her courage. They felt like a discovery of her “true origins”—as if she “was not alone in what, until then, I had held secret to myself.” Now, perhaps, L will recognize and adore her as a kindred spirit. Perhaps he will change her life once again.
But the visit doesn’t go as planned. L rudely brings a guest without asking, a beautiful young woman who makes M jealous. He takes down the cottage’s curtains and paints on its walls. He treats M with scorn; at times, it’s as if he despises her. She worries that he finds her dowdy, insignificant, controlling. Still, her attraction to L persists; she even puts on her wedding dress to sit for a portrait session with him. Her desire isn’t primarily physical, though. L and his art represent something larger: power, vision, uncompromising amorality. “He allowed me,” M thinks, “to realize the extent to which I had let my own life be defined by others,” drawing “me with the cruelty of his rightness closer to the truth.”
But what is truth exactly, and is it always desirable? These are just two of the enormous questions—about art and attention, time and desire—that Cusk plants within the novel’s deceptively straightforward purview. Second Place is so contemplative that it’s almost claustrophobic. It’s also fundamentally referential, even obsessive. Addressed to an unknown person named “Jeffers,” it mimics Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir, Lorenzo in Taos, another book about an artist who comes to visit. (This device, never explained, is by turns innocuous and distracting.) Second Place also draws on Cusk’s own books—in one of her earlier novels, Transit, a character is similarly entranced by an art exhibit. This preoccupation with creativity and influence indicates another set of questions that recur in her work: What is art’s purpose, and how is it connected to reality?
Leaving Paris after her transcendent gallery visit, M encounters a man on a train who she calls “the devil.” He is “yellowed and bloated with bloodshot eyes,” sweaty and leering, fondling a “barely clothed” girl on his knee. She wants to stop him, but doesn’t. Instead, she ignores him, like all the other passengers. Though only briefly described in the novel’s first few pages, the man becomes an omen of the “evil that usually lies undisturbed beneath the surface of things.” After his appearance, and after her divorce from her first husband, M becomes depressed, even suicidal. In her mind, the events are connected: L’s paintings, the devil on the train, her breakdown. On the marsh, she thought she had at last found some respite with Tony—but with her invitation to L, evil is once again disturbed: “What did I do but find fault with the beauty and the peace and try to stir them up!”