Rachel Cusk’s 2006 novel Arlington Park begs the question: Are all suburban women profoundly unhappy with their lives as wives and mothers? The emotional landscapes of the five women Cusk selects to follow about are a raucous mixture of bitter, enraged, depressed and perplexed. They are overwhelmingly frustrated with their roles as housewives, revolted at the perception of themselves as slaves to their children and keenly aware of a separation from their true inner identity.
In the bathroom Maisie looked in the mirror. I am thirty-eight, she thought. I am Maisie at thirty-eight. This did not seem to be the same thing as saying, this is Clara at six, this is Elsie at four, which she did far more often. She did not know whether anyone had ever crystallized her. It seemed just then a terrible thing not to know: to have to guess at, and to conclude from something unclaimed in her face, something unauthored and anonymous, that the answer was no. She could have been anything she wanted to be: that was the spirit in which she might have taken her parents’ limited and discriminatory love, rather than being left by it to wonder what she actually was.
Cusk’s 2004 novel The Lucky Ones (my review here) dealt with very similar issues – the possible transformation of the individual after marriage and parenthood. In that novel, the exploration of this idea seemed balanced and fair, carefully wrought and creatively considered and it determined a wide range of possible and believable resolutions. While The Lucky Ones hugged a broad cross-section of socio-economic life and posed more questions than it answered, Arlington Park deals specifically with wealthy suburbia and seems to offer a single unhappy vision as a final answer.
The husbands in Arlington Park are a gallimaufry of righteous machismo, perplexed insensitivity and concerned helplessness. They are not at all partners to their wives. In Cusk’s vision, the suburban lifestyle creates couples who do not communicate and whose alien universes only come together for procreation, the exchange of money and frequently unkind conversation. Some readers might question the believability of this rigid and dismal situation. Is it really that awful? Do ALL suburban women feel this way? Hasn’t anyone figured out how to successfully marry their individual passions with family demands?
Even the rare moments when a few of the women attempt to affirm their maternal or conjugal positions, they end up sounding emphatic, too shrill and even neurotic, like they are trying to convince themselves that the horrifying disaster they just perceived as their life is really nothing but a small hiccup in an elegant and rewarding existence. And then they throw their daughter’s lunchbox against the wall.
In many ways, the thematic project of the novel seems to work against its meaningfulness. The incredible self-awareness of each of the women runs directly contrary to the idea that they’ve allowed themselves to accept or be tricked into such unfulfilling lives. So then, is it society’s fault? The smug anesthetization of suburbia? The evil male? Unless we are supposed to laugh at these women (a rather horrifying idea), the novel reads like a vigorous scolding. You silly women, why did you give up your jobs? Why on earth did you fall in love? Who told you having children would be easy? Motherhood, life and marriage – suburban setting or no – are all much more nuanced than the inflexible and polarized war that Arlington Park presents.
However, something that Arlington Park does provide are wonderful, startling moments of distilled emotion. Cusk is remarkably skilled at using her prose to explode a single moment into a vast offering of experience and feeling, as exampled below by pregnant Solly’s middle-of-the-night thoughts:
In the strange, whirling, light-cluttered realm of her body she felt only an immense confusion. She felt she contained everything, all good and evil, every possibility, everything in the world all jumbled together, shaken up like the sea by a storm so that nothing was clear and separate; it was all opaque, nauseating, full of litter and rubbish. She burned to expel from her this great, mounting force of debris, to clarify herself.
Cusk writes with a rich and textured prose, filled with unique images and sharp dialogue. She writes confidently and vividly. Despite any frustration with the project of this particular novel, her writing is a pure pleasure to get lost in.