Arlington Park is the title of Rachel Cusk’s chilly new novel as well as the leafy British town where, over the course of a day both tumultuous and numbingly ordinary, her five central characters — all young mothers — grapple with anger, boredom, and existential despair. In both her recent fiction and her excellent 2002 memoir, A Life’s Work, Cusk has obsessively chronicled the dark side of contemporary motherhood. This is her gloomiest bulletin yet.
The narrative begins as 36-year-old Juliet lies in bed before rising one morning, brooding over a fight with her husband and the general dreariness of her existence. ”She had never expected to find herself here, where women drank coffee all day and pushed prams around the grey, orderly streets…. At school she was the exceptional one.” In a claustrophobic household nearby, Amanda experiences every hour ”like a boulder she had to singlehandledly lift and move laboriously out of her path,” finding pleasure only when she cruises around town at the wheel of her silver Toyota. Maisie can’t even muster those fleeting moments of transcendence. Feeling like a ”boat in a harbour where the tide has gone out, lying helplessly on her side in the mud,” she throws her daughter’s lunch box at the wall and shouts, ”You’re ruining my life!”
You won’t read about these feelings in pastel-hued parenting guides, and Cusk’s frank acknowledgment of maternal ambivalence is rare and wonderful; so, too, is her ability to pinpoint and articulate nebulous emotional states. But Cusk’s group portrait in Arlington Park suffers from the sameness of her characters, who, with the possible exception of saucy Christine — who presides over the hilarious drunken dinner party that closes the novel — seem like multiple versions of the same smart, deeply depressed woman. Cusk conveys the misery of domesticity, but never the humor and grace that do, on occasion, enliven it.