Here’s where the old cliché about not judging a book by its cover rings true: The image on the dustjacket of Rachel Cusk’s third novel, The Lucky Ones, shows an old couch sitting in a vaguely bohemian-looking loft with three brightly colored pillows placed almost symmetrically. The photograph practically screams chick-lit-lightweight, comic, fashionable, and at its darkest only bittersweet.
The first chapter, “Confinement,” puts that impression to rest quickly. Not only is its main character, Kirsty, nine months pregnant, but she is also an inmate at a British prison, convicte—and wrongly so, Cusk makes clea—of setting a house fire that killed two children and their mother. Kirsty’s predicament is insoluble. Prison is no place for a mother, but neither is her old neighborhood: “It didn’t matter much what you were being accused of, if you came from the Barrows you were guilty of something.”
Furthermore, her emotions toward her unborn child are far from nurturing: “The baby had protected her, not just from the things that might have happened to her otherwise, the drugs and fights, the politics, the web of sex she’d begun to see around her, but from the greater imperative to rebuild what her sentence had knocked down: her value.”
In the second chapter, Cusk takes us about as far from Kirsty as possible. “The Way You Do It” begins on a train carrying a group of London yuppies to a mountaintop ski resort. The connection between this and the previous chapter is the presence in both of a shallow young attorney named Jane. At this point it becomes clear: The Lucky Ones is a novel-in-short-stories, part of an alarming trend that I suspect has more to do with economics than aesthetics. After all, it’s easier to sell a novel than a short-story collection, unless you’re Stephen King or maybe Alice Munro.
So “The Way You Do It” connects to “The Sacrifices” via a minor character named Lucy, whose twin sister narrates the latter story about her relationship with a man named Robert and his son. The daughter in “Mrs Daley’s Daughter” is Josephine, who appears briefly in “The Way You Do It” and reappears as a depressed new mother fretted over by her own neurotic mother, who makes an appearance in the collection’s only misfire, the final story called “Matters of Life and Death.” Each story/chapter examines a new facet of motherhood and finds it in some way grim, hopeless, or ultimately unrewarding.
As a novel—a cohesive work telling one major story with several smaller strands branching off from it—The Lucky Ones doesn’t quite work. The connections between the stories are too tenuous, too minor. Jane and Lucy, for example, are nonentities, merely peripheral and not crucial to the main characters and events. There is something strangely duplicitous about this technique: The novel purports to be as felicitous and random as everyday life and to represent a network of coincidences and connections that make up each life, but in truth The Lucky Ones is precisely plotted and predetermined beyond all spontaneity.
Furthermore, in the final story, “Matters of Life and Death,” Cusk scrambles to tie up all her loose strands and link all the stories together in an effort to reveal the larger purpose of the novel, its overarching narrative. But her desperation muddies an already awkward and purposeless story marked by a fragile main character and a cartoonishly insensitive husband. Cusk works too hard to make the material mean more than it does, and the result is stilted, overlong, and disingenuous.
This overwrought and ineffective finale is all the more unfortunate because while The Lucky Ones doesn’t quite work as a novel, it more than succeeds as a thematically cohesive short-story collection. Cusk proves a writer of remarkable patience and intuition, with a gift for fluid prose, emotional clarity, and—despite “Matters of Life and Death”—story structures that arc cleanly and gracefully. She writes with sharp insightfulness about everyday routines, turning the mundane into the monumental: the gradual accretion of emotions in a marriage that creates an oppressive hatred, the profound havoc children wreck in their parents’ lives, the missed opportunities that make up a life.
Far from the romantic trifle its cover suggests, The Lucky Ones offers a grim view of parenthood, and when it stays on a small scale and ignores the big picture, it feels honest and well observed.
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