Strong Women: New Novels from Rachel Cusk, Diane Johnson & Others

Veteran authors and newcomers deliver exemplary new fiction about the lives of women.

redstarCusk, Rachel. Second Place. Farrar. May 2021. 192p. ISBN 9780374279226. $25. F

Once again, Cusk (the “Outline” trilogy) delivers a novel so thorny with ideas that every sentence merits a careful reading, yet crafted in language as ringingly clear as fine crystal. Her protagonist is M, a fiftyish woman dwelling contentedly in unidentified marshlands with her solid, devoted husband, Tony; they live off the land and nearby sea while turning over a second house they’ve constructed to visiting artists and writers. Having encountered L’s paintings as a young woman, an experience of deep identification that changed the direction of her life, M is eager to make L a guest. (Cusk wrote the novel in tribute to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Lorenzo in Taos, which recalls a similar visit D. H. Lawrence made to Luhan in New Mexico.) Though deeply reflective, even cerebral, M is also gushingly guileless, and the reader can tell from their first correspondence that having L visit is not a good idea. Indeed, he arrives with gorgeous young Brett and proceeds to undermine M’s world in escalatingly cruel ways. It’s wrenching reading, yet in the end M has gracefully readjusted her life, as L has not. VERDICT A gorgeously sculpted story of living and learning; for all readers.


redstarDe Kerangal, Maylis. Painting Time. Farrar. Feb. 2021. 240p. tr. from French by Jessica Moore. ISBN 9780374211929. $27. F

As she did with The Cook, award-winning French author de Kerangal offers stunning portraiture suffused with the joy and meaning of work. Paula Karst labors in trompe-l’œil to render wood and stone realistically with paint, and de Kerangal takes great pains to show us how “this average girl, sheltered and predictable (and a little on the lazy side), … this impetuous dabbler … ended up plunging headlong” into a craft that readers will come truly to admire. (The excellent translation helps.) As Paula pursues her studies at Brussels’s rigorous Institut de Peinture, her eyes and muscles burning from 18-hour days, then plies her trade at film studios throughout Europe, the author dazzlingly describes the materials and techniques involved with an almost touchable physicality that matches the subject. Meanwhile, Paula comes of age, moving away from her befuddled parents and forging meaningful ties with classmates Kate and Jonas, who recommends her for the job that crowns the last third of the book: helping to create Lascaux IV, which replicates the famous prehistoric caves. Seeing Paula merge with the black deer she re-creates, feeling its fear of the woolly rhinoceros as time drops away, is enough to make one cry. VERDICT There’s only one word for it: superbe.


redstarDennis, Amanda. Her Here. Bellevue Literary Press. Mar. 2021. 352p. ISBN 9781942658764. pap. $16.95. F

DEBUT Meeting in Paris with sculptor Siobhán, an old friend of her mother, late-twenties Elena is offered a startling proposition: Siobhán wants her to craft a narrative from the journals left behind by Siobhán’s daughter, Ella, who vanished in Thailand six years previously. This act, Siobhán believes, will clarify what really happened to Ella, who learned only as an adult that Siobhán had birthed her and given her away. Even as Elena abandons her dissertation and boyfriend in America, moving to a Montmartre studio Siobhán makes available, Dennis’s elegant yet propulsive debut becomes much more than a missing-persons search. Elena is also trying to learn more about her own artist mother, gifted yet twice institutionalized, whose shocking death left Elena with a six-month memory gap. Adding further tension, Ella’s troubled state of mind worryingly mirrors—and might amplify—Elena’s. The narrative shifts gracefully among Elena’s story, the elliptical journal entries, and the increasingly interesting reconstruction of a life for Ella, who’s found in Elena’s pages if not in reality. VERDICT Elena’s narrative-within-a-narrative nicely reveals the creative process, while Dennis’s larger story confirms the value of living boldly even as we step back to frame our experiences. Highly recommended.


Figueroa, Jamie. Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer. Catapult. Mar. 2021. 240p. ISBN 9781948226882. $25. F

DEBUT In Figueroa’s seductive, lyrically wrought debut, as much dreamscape as story, the mother of Rufina and Rafa has been dead for months but haunts them still at their house in Ciudad de Tres Hermanas. Though nearly 30 and world-traveled, Rafa was always held close by his mother and cannot imagine living without her, so 28-year-old Rufina makes him a bet. That weekend, if they can earn enough money performing in the plaza to leave town, he must embrace life. Otherwise, he can do as he pleases. In childhood, the siblings worked the plaza as part of a live installation devised by the Explorer, a charmer who insinuated himself into the family and wreaked havoc. Now, as clueless tourists trot by, Rafa exercises his special magic—reading meaning into shadows—and Rufina sings seductively, watched over by a ragged angel and a worshipful young policeman. She’s as troubled as Rafa, still imagining she has the baby lost long ago in childbirth. Family and ancestral history are bound tightly with immediate events as the weekend moves toward its fateful last hours. VERDICT The narrative can get a little lost in the gorgeous, reflective language but remains an absorbing study of memory and grief.


Johnson, Diane. Lorna Mott Comes Home. Knopf. Apr. 2021. 336p. ISBN 9780525521082. $28. F

A past mistress of the comedy of manners, as evidenced by her award-nominated Le Divorce and Le Marriage, Johnson returns with a genial story exploring the everyday scrapes and inconveniences of late middle age before averring that “sometimes, though rarely, things sort themselves out.” Sixtyish American Lorna Mott is married to a Frenchman whose apparent philandering she has found tiring; she decides to leave him, returning home to San Francisco. She’s determined to start life anew, relaunching a languishing art history career and attending to her three grown children. There’s Peggy, divorced and struggling, with bright-eyed teenage daughter Julie; the successful Curt, who abandoned his family and vanished to Thailand after suffering a terrible accident; and troubled middle child Hams. Lorna’s first husband, Ran, pointedly refuses to help them, and though Lorna hasn’t seen him for decades, in the end she’ll be wrapped up with his new family as well, even as she realizes that she’s out of touch with the art world and the realities of contemporary urban American life. Maybe she’s not so ready for what’s next. VERDICT The crises here aren’t huge, but they are real and insightfully played as Johnson delivers a satisfying understanding of life’s constant vagaries.

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Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; winner of ALA's Louis Shores Award for reviewing; and past president, awards chair, and treasurer of the National Book Critics Circle, which awarded her its inaugural Service Award in 2023.

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