Feature

Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk

Rachel Cusk has written a “rather bravely unsympathetic” memoir about her marriage’s dissolution.

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $20)

Rachel Cusk was a terrible wife, said Liza Mundy in the San Francisco Chronicle. In this “rather bravely unsympathetic” memoir about her marriage’s dissolution, the 45-year-old British novelist more or less confesses to having pushed her mate into the role of househusband, then “scorned him for occupying it.” Watching the man she’d married surrender his law career and embrace domesticity was apparently a big turnoff. But as off-putting as her account can be at first, it grows stronger. “The book’s satisfactions lie in its cold-eye probing of the ‘aftermath’”—that post-separation period when a divorcée can feel like an exile, “on the outside of domestic life, looking in.”

Cusk has a reputation for brutal honesty, said Emma Gilbey Keller in The New York Times. A decade ago, her memoir on motherhood, A Life’s Work, inspired critics overseas to label her as a self-obsessed child-hater. Yet there was “much to love” in that book, which can’t be said of this “often tedious” follow-up. “A lack of detail is the book’s most glaring omission.” Instead of laying out the causes of the split, Cusk spends page after page comparing her plight to those fueling various ancient Greek dramas. She’s good at depicting the emotional wounds that her two young daughters have suffered in the wake of the divorce, but finds her own psyche “disproportionately fascinating.”

Such criticism feels too harsh, said Rebecca Mead in NewYorker.com. To be honest, though, “I wasn’t sure what to make of the book at first.” Early on, there’s an extended metaphor about her decaying marriage being like a toothache that teeters “on the brink of absurdity.” But as things progressed, “I came to admire Cusk more and more for those very reasons that her critics berated her—for the gravity and ruthlessness of her self-examination.” At a time when too many memoirs affect an ironic tone to avoid confronting difficult truths of the heart, she’s written a book that’s “emotionally raw and deeply uncomfortable-making.”

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