“Second Place,” by Rachel Cusk (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
In 1922, the now-legendary arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan invited the British writer D.H. Lawrence to her home in Taos, New Mexico. A decade later, she published a memoir about the visit called “Lorenzo in Taos.”
Rachel Cusk’s latest novel, “Second Place,” was inspired by that memoir and written as a tribute to Luhan. One need not be familiar with the first to marvel at the second — a brilliant but flawed allegory filled with ravishing descriptions of nature set in an unidentified land after an unspecified global financial collapse that has rendered travel almost impossible.
Like Luhan’s memoir, the novel is also about an intense relationship between two artists, although Cusk has made the Lawrence figure a painter, not a writer. It is narrated by a woman writer identified only as M., addressed to an off-stage character named Jeffers, a reference to the real-life poet Robinson Jeffers, who was part of Mabel’s circle.
Cusk’s decision to model her book after the earlier work came with risks. On the one hand, it gave her ready-made plot points because of Luhan and Lawrence’s tempestuous relationship. On the other hand, it also gave her the baggage of a white woman’s beliefs about Native American culture in the 1920s.
Thus, M. speaks to Jeffers in an archaic voice, which Cusk renders in the text by using lots of distracting exclamation points. Also, M.’s second husband, Tony — based on Luhan’s fourth husband, a Taos Pueblo Indian named Tony — is a caricature of a Native wise man, in tune with the rhythms of nature.
The story M. recounts to Jeffers relates what happened the summer she invited the painter L. to stay in her guest house — the “second place” of the title — on the remote coastal marsh where she lives with Tony; a 21-year-old daughter from her first marriage, Justine; and Justine’s affected boyfriend, Kurt.
M. didn’t know L. when she extended the invitation but had been profoundly moved by his paintings 15 years earlier when her first marriage was in crisis. He accepts, then unexpectedly shows up with a stunning young woman named Brett — another homage to Lujan, whose circle of friends included the British-born painter Dorothy Brett.
Things do not go well, as one might expect when two moody, self-absorbed artists get together. Oddly enough, while Cusk is extraordinarily adept at depicting the shifting alliances among the secondary characters, the relationship at the center of the book — between M. and L. — never makes much sense. The fact that it doesn’t matter is a testament to Cusk’s astonishing skills as a storyteller and a writer.