Saturday, February 20, 2016

OUTLINE by Rachel Cusk. (Fic)

"Outline" was picked one of the 10 best books of 2015 by the NYTIMES.  There is much to like in this book.  It is unusual stylistically, and the author has put a lot of philosophical thought into her characters.  Because of its placement in the TIMES as one of the five best fiction books, it must have resonated and spoke to its many readers.  Cusk is given to long sentences and paragraphs, which go on for pages, as if the character in question is not going to let go of that thought.  It is a book you must devote some thought to about the characters and their motives.

The book opens with a writing teacher who is waiting to board a plane to Greece where she is to teach a summer seminar on writing.  Not much is given away about this woman, Grace, but we learn that she teaches in London and is divorced and the mother of two boys. As one reads it seems likely that Grace has much in common with the author, Rachel Cusk, and that it is the author who is speaking to the reader, perhaps about something she has experienced herself.

  While waiting to board the plane, Grace meets an old acquaintance, and it isn't long before he is telling her about his problems.  The plot of the book is set.  Grace boards the plane and, the passenger seated next to her is soon telling his story of love and divorce.  We only know this man by the name she gives him, "my neighbor."  She meets up with this man again soon after she arrives in Athens and spends a day with him on his boat and later one other day.  He makes a pass at her, she is not interested, and that is that.  The rest of the book is made up of the stories of the students in her writing class.  Rather than have them write their stories, she asks each student to relate a tale of a recent event.  Only one student becomes indignant and leaves the class, because she was expecting to write, not converse.

Although the characters are connected by place, each tells an interesting and unusual story, thus the format becomes a loosely connected book of short stories.  Like a therapist, without inserting herself into the book, Grace inspires confidence in her students to talk about their families, lovers, careers, and travels. What ties the book together is the idea of how people form relationships. Besides the students, three other characters pop up, and each seems sufficiently self-absorbed to let us in on their thoughts about life and friendships, or perhaps loneliness.

It seems to me that what Cusk, a creative and original writer has done, is to let us in on written portraits of various people she has come across in life and invent stories around them.  Her characters are lively and colorful.  I recognize Cusk's talent as an exceptional writer, but I cannot say I enjoyed the book that much.  Perhaps I was looking for more from the characters; I wasn't feeling connected to them the way I wished to have been.

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