two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
47-July-Aug-2010
By: 
Rachel Cusk
user_rating: 
0

A-The Bradshaw Variations.epsBritish author Rachel Cusk's debut novel, Saving Agnes (1993), won the prestigious Whitbread First Novel Award, and her subsequent novels and memoir have generated much critical acclaim. In 2003, she was nominated for one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists. Also Reviewed: The Lucky Ones (3 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2004), In the Fold (3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2006), Arlington Park (3.5 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2007), and The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy (3 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2009).

The Story: Middle-aged Thomas Bradshaw and his wife, Tonie Swann, have changed places: Tonie, a housewife who previously worked part-time, has just been promoted to a full-time management position, and Thomas has quit his own job to look after their home and their eight-year-old daughter Alexa. While they spar with their pretentious and disapproving parents over this role reversal, Thomas, preferring to read and play the piano, neglects his household tasks, and Tonie, finally forging an identity separate from her family, starts to reevaluate the choices she has made. As Thomas and Tonie grow increasingly distant, Thomas's brothers must contend with their own domestic troubles and midlife crises.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 240 pages. $25. ISBN: 9780374100810

Guardian (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Thomas the househusband is learning to play the piano, and the musical references are insistent, as if Cusk thought they were what would hold the novel together; but what holds it together is the skewering quality of her observation. ... Sometimes she complicates simple things, snarling them in a cat's cradle of abstraction, but just as often, a sentence rewards with its absolute and unexpected precision." Hilary Mantel

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Like Cusk's earlier novels, The Bradshaw Variations focuses on the anomie and alienation of everyday life. But her climax ... [spoiler omitted] offers a new, mature mix of resignation, compromise and adaptation." Heller McAlpin

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3 of 5 Stars
"In developing her variations, Cusk trades away too much of her main characters' face time for us to ever fully grasp who they are. But even if the novel's center ultimately does not hold up, the best of Cusk's carefully crafted variations are good enough on their own to hold us." Mike Fischer

Independent (UK) 2.5 of 5 Stars
"To a large extent, plot in The Bradshaw Variations has yielded to feeling, causing the narrative to meander. The Bradshaws' ruminations by-pass clear, introspective soul-searching, pooling into heavier passages of numinous prose." James Urquhart

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"If each chapter is a close-to-perfect capsule of character development and verisimilitude, the cumulative effect is surprisingly muted. ... Nevertheless, if The Bradshaw Variations is disappointing in its totality, it still offers many pleasures. Pretty much every page gleams with Cusk's darkly humorous powers of observation." Curtis Sittenfeld

Boston Globe 2 of 5 Stars
"Her book ends up a failure. ... Too many people, not enough pages. Or maybe it's less about the ratio of people to page than it is about the lack of strong bonds between family members." Nan Goldberg

Telegraph (UK) 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Like Virginia Woolf, to whom she has been compared, Cusk attaches grand themes to the most trivial incidents. For this she is to be admired, yet here, instead of her usual stylish mosaic, the result is insistent and overbearing." Catherine Taylor

Critical Summary

Cusk's searing, incisive novels have earned comparisons to Virginia Woolf's for their astute recreations of women's inner lives as they collide with society's expectations. Unfortunately, most critics concluded that Cusk's seventh novel does not live up to the sum of its parts. Despite vivid characters, crisp prose, and sharp psychological insights, the plot lacks tension, while subplots and minor characters drop from the narrative without explanation, and the Bradshaws seem strangely unconvincing. "Really," argues the Boston Globe, "how deeply can we care about a family whose defining characteristic is a lack of warmth toward one another?" Despite these shortcomings, Cusk's fans may pick up The Bradshaw Variations for her eloquence and wry humor. Others may wish to steer clear of her latest.