31 August 2007 | Vol. 7, No. 2
A Review of Rachel Cusk's Arlington Park
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
256 pages. $23.00.
Check Amazon.com or Powell's Books.
Arlington Park is the sixth novel by British writer, Rachel Cusk. Set in an English suburb outside of London, it tells the story of five women: Juliet, Amanda, Christine, Solly, and Maisie. All are married with children and all are by and large dissatisfied with their lives, and bewildered by their dissatisfaction. In a series of linked stories, each from a different character's point of view, we follow these women during a single day that culminates in a dinner party at the home of Christine Lanham, perhaps the only woman who truly loves Arlington Park.
Juliet was supposed to be a famous professor or writer, but instead got married and settled in Arlington Park, where she teaches at a well-to-do all-girls school. There's Amanda, a social-climbing neat freak who suddenly learns of her cold reputation; Christine, who married up and lives in fear of falling back down; Solly, very pregnant and renting a room to various women who make her wonder what she's missed out on; and Maisie, a recent transplant from London, who persuaded her husband to move the family to the suburbs and now regrets it.
There are men in Arlington Park, as well, though we don't hear much from them. They are the "breadwinners." We don't know what they think about children, marriage, eating meat, SUVs, suburban life. We don't know if they enjoy the jobs they do to earn the money to live in Arlington Park. Even the sons of Arlington Park are something to put up with, destructive little brats held in lower esteem than the girls. The novel belongs to the women and it is full of them: the students at Juliet's school and in her Literary Club; the sisters and mothers on the phone; the women in the park taking their children to school or waiting for them in cars; the young, unwed mothers at the mall; the single women renting Solly's spare room. Even the Bronte sisters and their mother make an appearance in Juliet's frequent meditations on the unenviable status of women. To call Arlington Park Chick-Lit is to do no injustice, for it is Chick-Lit in its highest and purest form. The writing is intelligent, witty, and well-crafted, but men would probably shy away from this novel for the same reason they squirm during tampon commercials: They'd simply rather not know about it. And maybe they shouldn't. As T.S. Eliot once said, "Humankind can only bear so much reality." Or as Christine's institution-raised mother says, "'I always imagined that families were loving things…
Christine looked at the kitchen window, with its black squares of oblivion.
'You could be forgiven for imagining that.'
'I grew up in a home, you see.'
'I know you did, Mum.'
'I used to look at families and think they were like a tree of love. All these connected people rooted to the ground.'
'That's a lovely thing to think.'
One can't help reading a novel on this subject without thinking of Desperate Housewives. There's even the shadow of a death lurking behind everything, a young girl named Betsey Miller, who was kidnapped and is confirmed to be dead over the course of the novel. Whereas the television show makes use of the tranquil surroundings as a foil for violence, plotting, and sexual affairs, in Arlington Park there is no such drama. Things are what they seem. Even the death of Betsey Miller is something in the background, something sad, like global poverty, not pertaining to the daily running of life. Any reader who believes the suburbs to be a cultural and spiritual wasteland will have their prejudices confirmed. And yet, Cusk's great talent as a writer is to complicate these tired notions and make them fresh and engaging. Her Desperate Housewives are not stereotypes, but unique and sympathetic characters. Cusk is masterful at capturing the ordinary moments of family life. In one scene, Maisie must relate to her daughter Elsie the unwelcome news that she and her sister Clara are going to have a babysitter for the night:
Elsie's round eyes were level with her own. She saw the troubling significance of her remark register itself in them, as though they were two round, still pools into whose dark waters she had poked a stick.
'I don't want a babysitter to come.'
'Well, she's coming.'
'Who is it?'
'Katie.' Elsie thought. Then she nodded unhappily. 'I like Katie,' she admitted.
'I'd much rather stay here with you,' Maisie said, because in a way it was true… 'We're going to a dinner party.'
'Oh.' She thought again. 'Are you going to like it?'
'I like you,' Maisie said, picking up her small, dense, fleshy body and plunging her face into her neck. 'You're the only thing I like.'
Elsie was speaking into her hair. She could feel her mouth moving, like something small that lived there, just above her ear.
'I said, what about Clara?'
'Clara too. You and Clara.'
While the women of Arlington Park spend a good deal of time questioning life, its point, its end, Christine Lanham reveals herself to be a proponent of the Here and Now. At her dinner party after a few too many glasses of wine, she does what drunkards typically do and begins pontificating on life and its purpose, its purpose to build the future. She tries to relate this to Juliet's husband, a small, red-cheeked man who Christine, in her inebriated state, thinks of as an elf:
'We're all building the future in our way, aren't we?' she said…
'What about love?' said the elf.
She thought she hadn't heard him right. 'What about it?'
'Is it important? Does it have any importance, in all this future-building frenzy of activity?'
Christine lifted her glass and saw that there was nothing in it.
'I don't know why you're asking me, ' she said.
He shrugged. 'I thought you might know, that's all.'
She put her glass down on the table and it fell on its side. She watched a last little dark drop, like a tear, run out and over the rim.
'You've got to love life,' she said blearily. 'You've got to love just—being alive.'
'But how will anyone know you love it?' said the elf.
The room took a great tilt. It turned on its axis with all its ill-fixed clutter, its plates and people and furniture, its painstaking, ill-fixed record of time. Christine righted her glass, but the room remained tilted.
'Why would anyone need to know that?' she said.
Love is a problem for the women of Arlington Park. It is often absent or misplaced. Juliet admits to herself that she doesn't love her husband Benedict, but she does love literature. On her deathbed, Amanda's grandmother had called her cold and unloving. Unashamedly, she loves her Toyota. Maisie does love her husband, but finds it hard to make that love visible. While greeting the babysitter, she sees her husband coming down the stairs and feels an upsurge of this love:
She felt an almost unbearable sense of his reality, of his life and of the task, her task, of keeping these representations of him together, making them continuous. That was love, that work of deciphering and interpolating and testifying: to bear witness to something in its entirety, that was love.
Cusk's great achievement in this novel is how accurately and skillfully and imaginatively she bears witness.