Cusk, Rachel 1967-
Cusk, Rachel 1967-
Born February 8, 1967, in Canada; daughter of Peter and Carolyn Cusk; married Josh Hillman (a photographer), 1995; children: Albertine, Jessye. Education: Attended St. Mary's Convent, Cambridge, England, and New College, Oxford. Hobbies and other interests: Walking, football, piano.
Writer and novelist.
Whitbread First Novel Award, 1993, for Saving Agnes; Somerset Maugham Prize, 1997, for The Country Life; named among best young novelists, Granta, 2003.
Saving Agnes, Picador (London, England), 1992, Picador USA (New York, NY), 2000.
The Temporary, Macmillan (London, England), 1995.
The Country Life, Picador (London, England), 1997, Picador USA (New York, NY), 1999.
The Lucky Ones, Fourth Estate (London, England), 2003.
In the Fold, Little Brown (New York, NY), 2005.
Arlington Park, Faber and Faber (London, England), 2006, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 2007.
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother, Fourth Estate (London, England), 2001, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2002.
Also contributor to Nadav Kander: Beauty's Nothing, edited by Nadav Kander, photography by Gerard Malanga, Arena Editions, 2001.
British novelist Rachel Cusk is highly regarded as a chronicler of the emotional turmoil experienced by many women of her generation. Her characters tend toward alienation, depression, unchallenging employment, and unwisely chosen lovers. Critics have particularly praised Cusk's style, voice, powers of observation, and sense of comedy. Her first novel, published in 1992 when she was twenty-five years old, won Cusk the prestigious Whitbread Award.
Saving Agnes, Cusk's literary debut, tells the story of a comfortably middle-class young woman freshly graduated from college and settling into what she hopes will be a special life in London; she has a magazine job, politically aware housemates, and, rather quickly, a lover. Almost as quickly, Agnes Day finds herself close to a nervous breakdown, anxious about her newfound feminism's conflict with her Catholicism. She is introspective, self-deprecating, and insecure—"a lost sheep," as New Statesman contributor Agnes Fletcher noted. Because of her self-absorption, she fails to see that her new lover is a drug addict and that she is about to lose her job. However, she learns, she grows, and ultimately she confronts the uncertainties of adulthood. Alex Clark pointed out in the Times Literary Supplement that Cusk keeps "firm control" of her characters and guarantees our continued sympathy with them because of "the quality of her prose and the delicacy of her narration." Fletcher observed that "style leaks out all over the place" in "Cusk's shimmering similes and delicious verbal confections."
On the surface, The Temporary, published in 1995, is about the hazards of contemporary urban existence and the tedium of office life. But underneath, in the words of Times Literary Supplement contributor Katy Emck, "it is a bleak, ironic tale that … deals with a common female predicament that is largely taboo in contemporary fiction." Francine is a temporary office worker by choice, waiting for the moment when her fine looks and her belief that she is destined to rise to exceptional heights take hold. On her way up, because she thinks it is helpful to have the right man in her life, she picks Ralph because of what she believes is his superior birth. In reality, he is a great deal less than perfect, and Francine's life dissolves in a series of desperate measures.
Emck called Cusk's "satire of feminine vanity … knowing and sharp" and her sense of comedy "absolutely distinctive. She shows the sadness of existence with an edge of worldly-wise malice." Chris Savage King in the New Statesman commented that "Cusk's take on dullness and inertia is little short of spectacular," and that her style "perfectly illustrates her characters' slo-mo and waterlogged states." Kate Hubbard in the Spectator called The Temporary "a fine achievement."
Stella Benson is the emotionally damaged protagonist of Cusk's 1997 novel, The Country Life. While on her honeymoon, Stella decides her marriage was a mistake and flees from her husband, her parents, and London altogether, for a job as an au pair in a small, rural village. Her charge is Martin, the disabled teenaged son of a very well-off farming family. Almost immediately, Stella's life collapses in a series of calamities: she breaks out in hives, walks through a thorny hedge, gets badly sunburned, then throws up. All she wants is "to exist in a state of no complexity whatever," but the family is dysfunctional, she is pursued by inappropriate suitors, and she appears to perform no task with competence. Her anxiety, already acute due to the emotional baggage she has brought, only gets worse. Martin's mother, who dominates her husband and the farm, is in turn manipulated by all of her children, save Martin, who forms an unlikely alliance with Stella. Rural living turns out to be no less strenuous than city life and no less convoluted; but for all of that, as Lucy Atkins pointed out in the Times Literary Supplement, The Country Life "heralds the triumph of the ordinary." Spectator contributor Cressida Connolly noted that there are some "brilliant set pieces" in the novel, and called the book "a comedy of manners." A reviewer writing in Publishers Weekly noted that Stella's attempts to "face her own inner oppression" would win new readers for Cusk's two previous novels as well.
In The Lucky Ones Cusk tells five separate but related stories. On the edges of all the stories are the characters Victor, a lawyer dying of cancer, and his wife Serena, a newspaper columnist. The stories ultimately come together as the couple finally tells their own story. However, according to John Mullan in the Guardian, "what binds the whole together is something stronger: the business of having children." Mullan explained that each story involves the limitations that becoming a parent puts on one's life. Lloyd Evans in the London Daily Telegraph noted that "at the heart of the book lies a discussion about feminism conducted by two women who represent opposing strands of the maternal experience." Reviewing The Lucky Ones for the Observer, Stephanie Merritt found that "very little happens; the big, dramatic events take place elsewhere, off the page, and the narratives instead trace the ripples these events leave in the consciousness of the characters." "Cusk's restrained, elegant and fiercely observant novel is interesting right from the start," Jane Shilling maintained in the Daily Telegraph.
Cusk turns to nonfiction with her book A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother, an account of her pregnancy and the first year of her daughter's life. Along the way, she seeks to shatter some of the romantic notions about the process. A Publishers Weekly contributor found that Cusk's "dry, honest style is a refreshing change for anyone seeking to understand the daily realities of undertaking such an enormous responsibility." "Ultimately," wrote Rachel Collins in Library Journal, "what Cusk offers is an exposé of motherhood that extracts its myths and reworks them into personal truths." "Cusk has written something fine and beautiful," Caitlin Flanagan claimed in the Atlantic Monthly. Similarly, Suzanne Moore in the New Statesman commented: "Cusk has crafted a work of beauty and wisdom."
In her novel In the Fold, Cusk tells the story of Michael who, after his marriage turns bad, returns with his son to visit an old college friend in Egypt. On a previous visit to his friend's family while the two were in college, Michael was awed by the family and their gentile life. Upon his return, however, he finds that the family's good manners and graces hide anger and more, creating even more disillusionment in a man who thought his life was destined for greatness. Amanda Craig, writing in the New Statesman, noted: "Cusk has written a genuinely funny comedy of manners, a small, spiky novel about the loss of autonomy." Referring to In the Fold as a "black comedy of manners," a Publishers Weekly contributor added that the author "serves up crisp prose full of the unexpected pleasures of observation and metaphor." Ada Calhoun, writing in the New York Times Book Review, noted "the richness and honesty with which she [Cusk] explores depths of narcissism."
Arlington Park is a novel of young mothers living the upper-class life in the Arlington Park suburb of London. All the action takes place on one rainy day and features the inner turmoil of four women who appear to have everything that a young mother could want but who suffer from various disenchantments and worries, all of which are revealed through their interwoven stories. For example, Maisie Carrington does not like her neighbors or even her own daughters, while Amanda Clapp is intent on keeping a perfect household, a goal that falls apart as a group of kids playing in her house become out of control. A passing comment gets Juliet Randall thinking about age and personality, while Christine Lanham finds that her new status via marriage has revealed to her a world that she abhors. "Their plight is an old story, but Cusk makes it incisively vivid," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. Mary Ellen Quinn, writing in Booklist, noted that the author "shows herself to be a master of incisive, unsentimental domestic fiction." Sophie Ratcliffe wrote in the New Statesman that Arlington Park is "a masterly piece of writing."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Cusk, Rachel, The Country Life, Picador (London, England), 1997. Picador USA (New York, NY), 1999.
Cusk, Rachel, A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother, Fourth Estate (London, England), 2001, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2002.
Atlantic Monthly, September, 2002, Caitlin Flanagan, review of A Life's Work, p. 154.
Book, May-June, 2002, Steve Wilson, review of A Life's Work, p. 84.
Booklist, November 1, 1999, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Saving Agnes, p. 508; September 1, 2005, Marta Segal Block, review of In the Fold, p. 62; November 15, 2006, Mary Ellen Quinn, review of Arlington Park, p. 31.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), April 13, 2003, Lloyd Evans, "A Writer's Life: Rachel Cusk," and Jane Shilling, review of The Lucky Ones.
Entertainment Weekly, October 21, 2005, Jennifer Reese, review of In the Fold, p. 81; December 22, 2006, Jennifer Reese, review of Arlington Park, p. 88.
Financial Times, September 17, 2005, review of In the Fold, p. 33.
Fit Pregnancy, August-September, 2002, Celeste Fremon, review of A Life's Work, p. 26.
Guardian (Manchester, England), April 5, 2003, John Mullan, review of The Lucky Ones; August 27, 2005, Anna Shapiro, review of In the Fold.
Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 2006, review of Arlington Park, p. 1090.
Library Journal, October 1, 1999, Nancy McNicol, review of Saving Agnes, p. 132; May 1, 2002, Rachel Collins, review of A Life's Work, p. 120; September 1, 2005, Caroline Hallsworth, review of In the Fold, p. 128; November 1, 2006, Barbara Hoffert, review of Arlington Park, p. 67.
London Independent, September 2, 2005, Carol Birch, review of In the Fold.
New Statesman, June 4, 1993, Agnes Fletcher, review of Saving Agnes, p. 39; July 28, 1995, Chris Savage King, review of The Temporary, p. 41; September 3, 2001, Suzanne Moore, review of A Life's Work, p. 37; December 17, 2001, Jennie Bristow, "Playpen World: Jennie Bristow on the Cult of Mummy Lit," p. 114; October 3, 2005, Amanda Craig, review of In the Fold, p. 54; October 9, 2006, Sophie Ratcliffe, review of Arlington Park, p. 57.
New York Times Book Review, October 16, 2005, Ada Calhoun, review of In the Fold. p. 17.
Newsweek International, October 17, 2005, Shailaja Neelakantan, review of In the Fold, p. 57.
Observer (London, England), March 30, 2003, Stephanie Merritt, "Mum's the Word."
Publishers Weekly, October 12, 1998, review of The Country Life, p. 55; November 15, 1999, review of Saving Agnes, p. 54; March 25, 2002, review of A Life's Work, p. 52; August 1, 2005, review of In the Fold, p. 41; October 16, 2006, review of Arlington Park, p. 31.
Spectator, July 15, 1995, Kate Hubbard, review of The Temporary, pp. 32-33; July 5, 1997, Cressida Connolly, review of The Country Life, p. 36; April 19, 2003, John de Falbe, review of The Lucky Ones, p. 40; September 17, 2005, Olivia Glazebrook, review of In the Fold, p. 46; September 16, 2006, Diana Hendry, review of Arlington Park.
Times Literary Supplement, May 21, 1993, Alex Clark, review of Saving Agnes, p. 23; July 21, 1995, Katy Emck, review of The Temporary, p. 21; June 20, 1997, Lucy Atkins, review of The Country Life, p. 23.
Voice Literary Supplement, February, 1999, Stacey D'Erasmo, review of The Country Life.
Contemporary Writers,http://www.contemporarywriters.com/ (June 11, 2003).