Motherhood author Rachel Cusk proves to be a modern great

Sunday, April 11, 2004

When I was in elementary school I had a friend named Danny Plaugens. Danny was a nice enough kid, but eventually I had to cut the friendship short because of his overbearing mother.

Mrs. Plaugens never left us alone. She wouldn't let us watch TV other than PBS or talk on the phone after 7:30. Mrs. Plaugens even used to make Danny breathe in her face before bedtime to make sure he had brushed his teeth.

In reading Rachel Cusk's latest work, "The Lucky Ones" (Fourth Estate, $24.95), I saw some of Mrs. Plaugens in the meticulous, cold-hearted character Mrs. Daley. I also saw some of my own hippie parents in Josephine and Roger, and myself in Lucy.

Although I didn't particularly love any of these characters, they were all heart-breakingly real and true to their form. The prototypes in "The Lucky Ones" illustrate Cusk's artistic mastery of human nature -- that is, showing traits for what they are, free of judgment and without trying to change them.

Cusk -- a Whitebread Award-winning author -- is known for her novels on motherhood. Works like "Saving Agnes" and "The Country Life" have put her in a category with writers like Virginia Woolf and Betty Freidan. This work is no exception. While it may be slightly more painful to read than her previous novels, it is also the most touching.

In "The Lucky Ones," Cusk writes about feminism and motherhood from numerous angles. The five short stories in this work include one about a pregnant prison inmate who knows she may not see her baby until it is fully grown and one about a group of portentous 30-somethings who escape their children on a ski trip to the Swiss Alps.

While the socioeconomic differences in the characters are striking, the most remarkable difference is their attitude toward parenting. All of the characters are struggling, and all can be seen as both victims and bullies. The stories are woven together through small details, but are otherwise separate entities.

The story that incites the most cringing is indubitably "Mrs. Daley's Daughter." Mrs. Daley hates any variation from the norm and cannot stand that her unmarried daughter has had a baby. Cold and vengeful, there is nothing likable about Mrs. Daley. And yet, in a way, she is entirely realistic, a mother we all knew and hated. As in life, it is evident that Mrs. Daley will never change, although Cusk does offer reasons for her stinging words and actions.

As "The Lucky Ones" ends, Cusk leaves us without easy answers or platitudes.

Parenthood, she tells us, can be both what we need intrinsically and what we most despise. Just as Mrs. Daley sees the "ugly rawness of the newborn, their half-repellent squirming blindness," Vanessa considers babies "jewels" who occupy her entire happiness.

Through most of the story there hangs a ubiquitous newspaper columnist, Serena Porter. Serena's droll motherhood columns are admired by many mothers, who assume she lives the perfect life. Inside, Serena's life is falling apart, and Cusk uses her to dispel the myth that the perfect family life exists.

With all of her stories, Cusk's greatest strength is in her character vignettes. She does not compromise her prototypes by having them go through metamorphoses. Rather, she highlights the circumstances that led to her characters' faults without being condescending or using pity.

This type of characterization seems to be gaining popularity among modern writers. Jonathan Franzen drew his characters with a similar stark pen in "The Corrections," as did Alice McDermott in "That Night." These modern characters do not appear to deserve pity, nor are they asking for it.

Instead they are presented as flawed but true portraits of everyday men and women.