I picked up Arlington Park because I’d read another book by Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, which I found quite interesting and which made me want to read one of her novels. Arlington Park is set in an upscale London suburb by the same name and follows the lives of a few families in the neighbourhood—particularly from the women’s point of view—without any particular thread between them, other than the occasional meeting or dinner date. It takes on their varying levels of disgruntlement with, and understanding of, their lives as they are.
I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in the way that Arlington Park is written, dramatically yet dispassionately, very “third person,” sometimes flowing into a description of the weather or the street without any connection to character at all. Also in a similar way to Woolf, Cusk at times zooms in on a small detail or a moment that becomes metaphorical even to the characters as they are living an experience:
“She gave Amanda a raffish smile with her yellowed teeth. Her small blue eyes in their striated pockets of skin twinkled with suggestion. Sometimes Amanda had seen her and Max going out for the evening and Jocasta looked beautiful. The sight of her then caused Amanda to feel that there were certain people she lacked the ability to perceive, just as she often failed to see in famous paintings what it was that they were famous for. It gave her a sensation of instability, like vertigo.
‘We’re just boring,’ Amanda said.
Jocasta looked astounded and slightly embarrassed by this reply.
‘Oh, darling!’ she cried. ‘You’re not boring—nobody’s boring! I didn’t mean to suggest that at all, you poor thing!’” (p.55)Each chapter introduces a new character and a new point of view, until about three quarters of the way through when Cusk brings us back around to some familiar names. This rhythm feels comfortable. The different characters are all almost equally interesting, and I found myself reassured by the return of some of them so I could situate myself and return to people I cared about. However, I did find myself wanting more of them… not just in a good way, of wanting more of the book after it ended, but also wanting something more of significance. Why give us these characters, some of whom we come to care about, if they are nothing but solitary, singular, strange? What was Cusk trying to say about them, or about modern life? I felt like there was something more, and it didn’t ever manifest; she was on the cusp of saying something, but she stopped.
Some of the characters (Liz, Christine) are rather vacuous, which Cusk presents as a not-too-positive aspect of this suburban existence, but in her keenness to present them without judgement, I found myself wondering at some points how much I wanted to read about them. As they seem to learn nothing nor grow in any way during the narrative, why do I want to spend my time in reading an exact rendition of them? I also felt that because some of these characters are rather similar to each other—again, a point I think Cusk was trying to make about suburbia and our lives in it—I felt that the characters “slipped” sometimes, and I didn’t actually feel like I knew any of them, or like they had any character; whatever she wrote as coming next didn’t feel like it flowed from what had come before.
On the other hand, some interactions are rendered brilliantly, as when a few of the Arlington Park women go over to Amanda’s house and they spend the whole time talking to each other and not to Amanda (specifically about her house and her husband), not to be insulting but just as a style of conversation, which felt very real—and alienating, as I think it was meant to. Or the scenes with Juliet, one of the few recurring characters, during which she has inner dialogues with herself, trying to understand where she is in her life, her relative non-success as a mother and teacher (in that she doesn’t stand out), when as a student she was exceptional.
This book is exquisitely written, with some characters rendered in such a breathtakingly precise way that you can’t help but care about them and want to know more about them. It is trying to do something difficult, which is to ask critical questions about people who are asking very few of those questions of themselves, by portraying them exactly as they are.
I wanted more from this book than what was there, but this is definitely a worthwhile read, and I will be watching for more from Rachel Cusk.
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