by Rachel Cusk
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pages, $27

The woman who many years ago introduced me to Rachel Cusk had a particular Cuskian quirk that I remember well. We were both mothers of toddlers at the time, and my friend claimed that her 2-year-old son preferred her to be wearing an apron. She said it made him happy, and that you could tell he liked her better when she was wearing it. This seemed suspect to me—your 2-year-old has no interest in your outfit—and it also seemed mean-spirited. My friend’s implication was that her son recognized that she was tied down and subservient to him and to her domestic role when she was wearing the apron. She thought he was acting on an imperative to keep women down so inherent to maleness that it could manifest itself even in a 2-year-old. The idea wouldn’t be out of place in a Rachel Cusk novel; the author has described sex as an “elemental difference” that is “not violent, but looks like it,” and that creates a victimhood in women, a status bound up with the production of children. I never saw any evidence that my friend’s child preferred the apron. But I did think my friend preferred the fantasy; her abhorrence of sexism sometimes seemed to come full circle and become a sort of enjoyment. 

This, too, was Cuskian; the writer specializes in the cognitive dissonance that comes over upper-middle-class women upon finding themselves to be not quite as feminist as they believed they were. Unfortunately, in Cusk’s latest novel, Parade, her subtle, against-the-grain truth-telling on modern gender politics has become less fair and more ideological. 

Cusk published an early entry in the bad-mommy genre, A Lifes Work, in 2001, but came to wider prominence more than a decade later with the divorce memoir Aftermath, which spoke to educated, modern career women with its tense and layered truthfulness about marriage, parenting, divorce, and feminist expectations. In Aftermath, Cusk referred to “the sacking and slow rebuilding of every corner of my private world that motherhood has entailed.” This was my experience, and my former friend’s, too, and it’s a common surprise for new mothers who have been raised, as Cusk has explained, with “male” values. She also admitted to an atavistic belief that the children should have been hers after the divorce, and that she shouldn’t have had to financially support her stay-at-home ex-husband. The husband threw feminism at her, as well he should have, and Cusk discovered that perhaps she isn’t a feminist at all, but a kind of split creature who can’t fully evade the old archetypes or adopt the new ones. 

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