Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk

A year in the life of the Bradshaw family

Tonie, stay at home mom to the lovely Alexa, and Thomas, hardworking businessman, switch places. Tonie accepts an executive position at her university and Thomas quits his job to stay home, make dinner, dress and comfort eight year old Alexa. He also wants to deepen his knowledge of music, specifically the piano. Meanwhile, the alternating stories of Thomas’s brothers, one successful, one not, and his angry parents provide bittersweet comic relief until one day, a dramatic event causes the couple to return to their former stations.

These were linked micro stories, storylets really, about the extended Bradshaw family. The writing is traditional, but exquisite, highly technically proficient. The novel is written in the present tense (with one very short play). Although something cold is at the heart of this, a cold thoughtfulness, almost too insightful of others weaknesses, their vulnerabilities. The metaphors are amazing, especially the musical metaphors, making it so that the reader must read slowly both for simple pleasure and also to figure out exactly what is going on. The many characters are uniquely developed, all with their little arcs and neuroses. There are great sex scenes, great marital discussion scenes and great scenes of bureaucratic infighting, all done without describing too much, or even “much.”

The story opens with the question, What is art, and ends with the song of a bird. Thomas immerses himself in art, perhaps to the neglect of his family. Tonie is fascinated by work, perhaps to the neglect of her family. That story is framed by the dynamics of the extended Bradshaw family- the long festering hatreds, and yet a huge chunk of the scenes depict the family choosing to spend time together experiencing the loonieness inherent in human interaction. There’s a very grim view of families, and yet all the brothers seem to have great marriages and mentally healthy children.

If she needed a weekend job, Cusk could write sitcoms, because five or six times I laughed out loud at the crazy juxtapositions. The ending, surprisingly, is very conventional. The guilty are punished and the world’s balance restored.

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