Outline

This quiet introspective read is not for everyone. In it, British novelist Rachel Cusk, examines relationships and self-identity in a series of ten conversations that make up the book. The action occurs in the span of one week while a narrator travels to Greece for a week long writing seminar that she is teaching.

Caveat: this is one of the most unusual novels I have ever read. The author’s voice is sure, steady, and at times mesmerizing. It’s not an action novel in any sense, but rich with everyday life in a way that recalls Virginia Woolf’s works.  Philosophical with wry humor and a deep sense of what makes people tick.

The first dialogue begins on the plane with her seatmate, a wealthy Greek, who is twice, make that thrice divorced. As happens so often in life, the two passengers share many secrets about their lives. We learn that the Greek has a disabled brother and disabled child.  His ex, the mother of his son, wanted to institutionalize the boy, but the

industrialist would not let her. Instead the young man roams the small Greek island where he has lived for many years, occasionally freeing domestic animals. The son loves animals of all kinds, but a new resident of the island is not as forgiving as the long-term villagers.

Cusk’s writing is rich in detail particularly her descriptions of people. They capture both the external and internal person by close observation. She has the ability to dive deep and examine what life is about.  In conversations ripe with questions, she discovers what other people think about marriage, parenting, work, and careers. The nature of friendship also comes under intense scrutiny.

A few of the conversations include groups, particularly, those that involve the seminar participants. At two separate meetings, eleven students must answer a question or share an assignment. The first question is, “What did you notice on your way here today?”  In the second they share a story they wrote about an animal.

The students range in age from fifteen to the late forties, so their life experiences differ greatly. One mother speaks about how she lost it when the dog she bought for her children destroyed an elaborate birthday cake that she had spent a whole day making. The crux of the story is that when her older sister visits, the student is much less herself in her sister’s presence, and behaves in ways that don’t mirror her true self.

The businessman from the airplane makes several appearances. He invites the narrator on two boat trips where they talk about marriage and parenting. But the man cares to speak only about his own, and not those of narrator. When he blames his first wife for their divorce, she asks him why. He fell asleep after a great family party—a deep sleep while his wife did all the dishes. When the wife woke him and asked him if he was having an affair, he was too tired to be dishonest, i.e. the wife caused the divorce. The narrator does not let this slide, but the man won’t reconsider assigning blame elsewhere.

“One definition of love,” the narrator says is “the belief in something that only the two of you can see.”

The book is not set only in almost silent rooms. There’s a wild car ride along an Athens highway. Also, several times the narrator meets with friends in cafes and restaurants, once with Greek’s most famous lesbian poet, another time with two writers, one a man, the other a feminist novelist who recently acquired world fame.

A cerebral book in many ways, but one that will take you out of your life, yet reward you with pithy ideas about what is important in all our lives.

A book you might read alongside this is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.