Conversations with Faye: My Thoughts on Outline by Rachel Cusk

My Review:

outlineWhen my daughter was in preschool and I started taking her to various birthday parties and playdates to which she would be invited by her friends I always felt awkward and out-of-place. I was oftentimes the only mother at these gatherings who had a career and an only child.  When I would confirm that my daughter is an only child I would get a look, a comment:  “Oh you only have one child.”  I felt as if having a single child made me a mother, but not enough of a mother to be considered a part of their club.  And after my daughter was born I remember various family members asking not if we were having more children but when.   Of the various people portrayed in Cusk’s Outline, I identified most with Angeliki, a writer of contemporary women’s fiction, who describes her marriage and her reasons for having one child with her husband.  Because of my experiences with how people react to my decision to have an only child ,Angeliki’s story and her words particularly resonated with me.  Her remark at the thought of having more than one child is startlingly honest, “I would have been completely submerged.”

In Rachel Cusk’s first book of a trilogy that is loosely autobiographical, a recently divorced author named Faye is traveling to London from Greece where she will teach a short writing workshop.  While on her travels she encounters various people like Angeliki who share the stories of their lives, their loves, their identities and their perceptions of the world.  It is through their stories that the author starts to realize how her own identity and perception of the world have had a dramatic shift since the dissolution of her marriage.  On the plane ride to Athens, she meets a man who was raised in Greece but was educated in English boarding schools.  She simply refers to him as “her neighbor” throughout the narrative as he proceeds to give her the details about the passion, progress and dissolution of two of his marriages.

While in Athens, Faye meets others—a writer, a publisher, a fellow teacher, her students—with whom she has lengthy conversations.  She goes on a boat ride and a swim with her neighbor from the plane where she observes another family having an outing.  As she notices the ways in which father, mother and children interact with one another in a mundane setting Faye observes:  “I was beginning to see in other people’s lives a commentary on my own.”  This simple yet profound statement signifies that the discussions with her friends and her acquaintances are continually reshaping and reforming her own identity and her own views of the world as a single woman, a single mother, and as a person that is no longer half of a couple.

Cusk’s writing is philosophical and meditative and she uses her talents to make simple settings appear unique and intriguing.  An airplane ride, a swim in the ocean, dinner at a seedy Greek restaurant are all seen from a new point-of-view and become vivid backdrops for Faye’s conversations during which people share the most intimate details about their lives.  Her description of the atmosphere on the plane also appears to be a commentary on the various lenses through which we view others:

The plane seemed stilled, almost motionless; there was so little interface between inside and outside, so little friction, that it was hard to believe we were moving forward.  The electric light, with the absolute darkness outside, made people look very fleshy and real, their detail so unmeditated, so impersonal, so infinite.

One subject, in particular, that runs throughout all of the conversations is marriage and family life.  Cusk’s book could have easily turned into a typical narrative oftentimes found in contemporary women’s fiction that presents one lamentation after another condemning marriage and lauding the single woman as a heroine of strength and fortitude despite the horrible personality flaws of an ex.  Cusk’s approach to writing about marriage is more intelligent and philosophical; she understands that life is complex and she reaches beyond the usual, fictional narrative to underscore these complexities.  Faye offers little detail about her own life to her various acquaintances, but when she does voice her opinions during theses conversations they are thought-provoking and profound.  She says to her neighbor on the plane,   “Among other things, a marriage is a system of belief, a story, and though it manifests itself in things that are real enough, the impulse that drives it is ultimately mysterious.”

Cusk’s novel  is a meditation on life, love, relationships and our multilayered and ever-evolving perceptions of these things.  It will be very interesting to see how she continues her conversations about these topics in the next book of the trilogy entitled Transit.

For more interesting reviews and comments on Cusk’s books visit: Times Flow Stemmed and flowerville.

About the Author:

cuskRachel Cusk was born in Canada, and spent some of her childhood in Los Angeles, before her family returned to England, in 1974, when Cusk was 8 years old. She read English at New College, Oxford.

Cusk is the Whitbread Award–winning author of two memoirs, including The Last Supper, and seven novels, including Arlington Park, Saving Agnes, The Temporary, The Country Life, and The Lucky Ones.

She has won and been shortlisted for numerous prizes: her most recent novel, Outline (2014), was shortlisted for the Folio Prize, the Goldsmith’s Prize and the Bailey’s prize, and longlisted for Canada’s Giller Prize. In 2003, Rachel Cusk was nominated by Granta magazine as one of 20 ‘Best of Young British Novelists’

She lives in Brighton, England.


Filed under British Literature

15 responses to “Conversations with Faye: My Thoughts on Outline by Rachel Cusk

  1. Thanks for linking to me. I really like the complexity in cusk as well and look forward to what she does in transit. Her more recent books, so it feels to me, have more independence & depth, exemplified in the quote you chose, about people being real and yet impersonal and infinite. This good old contrast or problem between universal and particular things is – in a way – married by her quite well in the way none of those dimensions is ignored and she’s doing justice to both….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review. Cusk is a new author for me. I can see how the book really resonated with you. This seems to be an excellent read. I hope you enjoy the rest of the series.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks the the link, Melissa. I’ve fallen for Cusk’s work quite heavily and thought quite a bit about why that might be. Mostly it is because I like the way she views the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have one daughter too, Melissa! A mother is a mother is a mother. Same goes for a mother of adopted or stepchildren. I don’t think I encountered as much questioning of it as you did, but I do understand. I encountered more questions about my work, or rather my lack of a paying job (not if, but when I would “go back to work”). I have long been a freelancer and independent scholar/writer and happy with that. But it does puzzle people sometimes! 🙂

    Always a pleasure to read your reviews and thoughts on books and life, which can intersect in such fascinating ways. I really appreciated your describing the times this book spoke to you personally and seemed to reveal something true. Such a blessing when that happens! Cheers!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I didn’t realize Outline was the first of a trilogy!
    I liked how you connected your review to your own experience. And I agree with what Lucy says above about motherhood!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I almost read Transit when I was reading the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist (it was a great list) but was put off by not having read Outline. And, of course, i still haven’t read Outline. It seems to be Cusk’s approach to perhaps a well-worn genre that resonates with readers,


  7. I completely agree with you that ‘Cusk’s book could have easily turned into a typical narrative oftentimes found in contemporary women’s fiction’ I actually thought that the basic plot (writer with a failed personal life goes to teach creative writing in an exotic location) could just have easily have turned into a plot we’ve all read before from major male literary fiction authors. Somehow though, the complexity and authenticity of her prose transforms all this into an incredibly powerful and personal reading experience. Really looking forward to reading ‘Transit’ – the first pages which I’ve read in numerous shops look just as engrossing as ‘Outline’


  8. buriedinprint

    I’ve only read two of her books but one thing that’s struck me in each case was the sense that you can comfortably amble through the story as though it was something light to enjoy with a cup of tea but you could also settle down with it like a full meal, colour-contrasting pen to mark up passages and a stack of index cards for thematic notes and connections. That kind of seemingly casual and simultaneously profound storytelling is so impressive! I’m so curious to see what form Transit takes….


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