three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
By: 
Rachel Cusk
user_rating: 
0

A Summer in Italy

A-The Last SupperRachel Cusk is the award-winning author of six novels, including Arlington Park ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2007, In the Fold ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2006), and Saving Agnes, and a memoir on motherhood, A Life's Work ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2002). The Last Supper recounts an extended Italian road trip undertaken by the author and her family from their native England.

The Topic: Restless at home in an upscale suburb of Bristol, England, and crushed by the "fear of knowing something in its entirety," novelist Rachel Cusk uproots her family-a husband and two young daughters-on a three-month odyssey to Italy and a Tuscan villa. Along the way, Cusk writes passionately-and often with more than a little disdain-about food, landscape, art, and vile tourists, as she sifts through her ambivalence for her homeland and wonders uneasily where she and her family will settle (it seems that they don't really fit; this is, after all, no Frances Mayes escape fantasy). Finally, the answer remains hauntingly elusive. "Some people are more easily made unhappy than others," Cusk writes, "that much is clear."
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 239 pages $25. ISBN: 9780374184032

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] charming, restless, idiosyncratic hybrid of classic family road trip and probing personal essay where the roadside attractions include Pompeii, the Basilica of Saint Francis and Etruscan tombs, and the big questions on aesthetics and truth and human nature that such sites elicit are smartly explored." Megan Harlan

Independent (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"All [Cusk's] work radiates a fine intelligence and the writer's equivalent to an exquisite singing voice. The Last Supper is written with characteristic wit, courage, curiosity, and, I'm afraid, condescension to lesser mortals." Amanda Craig

Providence Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"Rachel Cusk's The Last Supper, neither the best nor the worst of this popular genre, is an account of a long summer spent in Italy with her husband and two children. ... Cusk's flamboyant descriptions, her semantic loop-the-loops, seem to exist independent of context, like frames that overwhelm paintings." Tony Lewis

Telegraph (UK) 3 of 5 Stars
"[The Last Supper] is less about Italians and their way of life than about the foreigners, both expatriates and tourists, whom Cusk encounters during her stay; and if anything it is a discouragement to those British readers who might be thinking of emigrating. ... There are many delightful and perceptive passages in this book, but I sometimes wish that Cusk would hide her cleverness a little." Alexander Chancellor

Guardian (UK) 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The book is scarred throughout by a tendency to sneer at almost every traveler who dares to cross their path, from the 'torpid, expressionless' family on the ferry to the 'grey, narrow, pinched-looking couple' they are forced to dine with at a B&B. ... Cusk's spotlight on the personal journey is so bright, so tightly trained, that the rest of humanity can fade to grey." Justine Jordan

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"There's an awkward tension throughout The Last Supper between Cusk's intellectual ambitions and the humdrum 'what I did last summer' narrative. ... I hope that next time she visits Italy she leaves her domestic baggage at home and concentrates on looking at the art." Adam Begley

Critical Summary

Without doubt, Rachel Cusk is a talented writer and one of the sharpest commentators working in fiction today. In the tradition of Frances Mayes, Peter Mayle, E. M. Forster, and D. H. Lawrence-writers enchanted by the siren call of Italy-Cusk records her observations in The Last Supper. The book works best in the travelogue passages, when the author dissects details with surgical precision. Many sections, though, devolve into a less-coherent analysis of Cusk's own plight, a terminal case of ennui amid "the endlessly repeating blankness" of life in Bristol. Her family is conspicuously anonymous, and the author takes a particularly jaundiced view of the tourists and expats she sees along the way, an irony not lost on many of the book's critics.