Lit-world luminaries Jhumpa Lahiri and Rachel Cusk return with slim, moody reflections on midlife ennui.

By Leah Greenblatt
April 26, 2021 at 12:00 PM EDT
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SECOND PLACE by rachel cusk and WHEREABOUTS by jhumpa lahiri

The gift and curse of middle-aged womanhood, they say, is invisibility: a strange superpower stripped of spandex and glory, but one that Jhumpa Lahiri and Rachel Cusk — two literary stars who know well of what they speak — use to beguiling if uneven effect in a pair of slender, tricky new novels. Neither of the narrators in their latest offerings is given a name or even a location beyond vague signposts (sun-baked Mediterranean cobblestones and seaside for Lahiri, somewhere marshy and remote for Cusk).

Lahiri's Whereabouts, by far the quieter of the two, wanders through the small ordinary days of its protagonist, a writer and professor who considers her half-chosen solitude "a condition I try to perfect." She attends drab academic conferences and ventures out to the occasional regrettable dinner party, though most hours drift by in a state of quiet unsettlement.

The book has an unlikely hook to it — the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Interpreter of Maladies and The Lowland wrote in her learned language of Italian before translating the work back into English — and her muted prose conveys a sort of spare poetic melancholy. But her cool conversational tone can also feel too restrained, slanting less toward transcendence than the mere marking of time.

In Second Place, Cusk (Outline) traces the arrival of a well-known painter to the isolated guest house of a woman who seems to hunger for some proximity to his art, or just his presence. His own feelings are equally obscure, though romance doesn't quite seem in the cards; the blithe blond companion he brings along isn't much older than her daughter. Inspired by famed art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan's 1930s account of playing host to D.H. Lawrence, Place thrums with an inner life only teasingly hinted at; one more mystery that age and wisdom can choose to conceal. Grade: Whereabouts B; Second Place B

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