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From Barnes & NobleA Day in the Life
Here's a concept: A young British woman longs for love and romance but works at a boring magazine and spends most of her time with her two female roommates. She meets a man who, it turns out, keeps major secrets from her. Eventually, she comes to terms with her life, gets over the man, and gets promoted to a job she really likes. Sound suspiciously like a clone of Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones? Well, it would be, except that novelist Rachel Cusk has a literary yet accessible style that owes more to the prize-winning (and bestselling) Carol Shields than to the gimmicky (and bestselling) Fielding. Yet fans of both The Stone Diaries and Bridget Jones's Diary will find much to like here.
For all her amorphous unhappiness and keen powers of social observation, Agnes Day is not a whiner. She's more of a poet of the absurd, chronicling her boring life at the obscure magazine, Diplomat's Week, with a subtle, trenchant wit. Here's part of her analysis of the typical week. "Of course Monday was the worst, a jack-booted Nazi of a day, people did suicidal things on Mondays, like start diets and watch documentaries.... Tuesday [was] a day whose unrelenting tedium was deceptively camouflaged by the mere fact of its not being Monday. Wednesday, on the other hand, was touch and go, delicately balanced between the memory of the last weekend and the thought of the weekend to come." When it comes to men, however, Agnes is a little less clear-eyed and tends to hop into bed with them even more quickly than do her more sophisticated roommates, Greta and Nina. But John, her current paramour, is one seductive type: He puts one of her knee scabs in his mouth ("Now I know what you taste like") and alludes to the beauty of the children they might one day have.
But John has a problem that the dewy-eyed Agnes doesn't understand, even after several bizarre sexual encounters. It takes Greta and Nina to inform her, after Agnes mopes around, not comprehending his erratic behavior, that he's a "smackhead." For all her wisdom and self-awareness, this is the one possibility Agnes had never considered. Like most women stuck so much in her own head, she'd thought the problem between them was hers.
Reading this basic plot summary, you might get the idea that Saving Agnes is a typical novel about a smart woman who loves too much, a classic late-1990s achiever who can't quite get her personal relationships right. And while that is certainly one of the book's themes, it is far more muted than a plot summary might suggest. Cusk (whose second novel, The Country Life, was published in the United States before Saving Agnes, which won a Whitbread First Novel Award) is interested in the darker side of her linear narrative. Taking us back to Agnes's childhood, Cusk introduces a slightly surreal set of anecdotes (the one about her father and his rabbit breeding is particularly subtle, yet telling) that set her heroine in a societal and historical context that transcends the I-Want-to-Get-Married genre. Like the aforementioned Shields, she manages to put the most mundane events beside the deeper, more complex yearnings of the soul; like Shields, she evokes a kind of universal recognition. In fact, for all the specifics of time and place in Saving Agnes, it could be taking place anywhere at any time. Agnes is a true Everyyoungwoman torn between conventionality and individuality; her yearnings and self-consciousness are the stuff of every life.
That said, Agnes is wonderfully different from you and me—if only in the piercing and sometimes lyrical observations with which Cusk imbues her. On the annual passage of summer into fall, Cusk has Agnes think: "It was late September, it seemed, the very glorious and glowing nub of autumn. She could scarcely believe that summer had sickened, died, and been buried without her even noticing. Looking around, there was little evidence now of mellow fruitfulness. She longed suddenly for the lost seasons of her youth, whose verdant memory had not been withered by time. She had surely been more alive then, had felt cold winters and hot summers, had rejoiced in the ebullience of spring. An old taste of innocence and freedom rose salty in her mouth and was gone." If Agnes were someone you knew, you might roll your eyes at such poetical rumination; on the page, she is the embodiment of the contradiction in all of us. Grown up yet still tied to her childhood, sophisticated yet clueless and lonely, Agnes reintroduces us to our most honest selves.
Saving Agnes has received massive praise in its native Britain, with The Times calling Cusk "the outstanding discovery of the year." OK, so they probably said that about Helen Fielding, too. Think of Saving Agnes, then, as the thinking woman's companion to Bridget Jones's Diary—one that examines, with more subtlety but no less wit, the conflicts of being a young, single woman.
Sara Nelson, formerly executive editor of The Book Report and book columnist for Glamour, is now managing online editor of Oxygen Media. She also contributes to Newsday, The Chicago Tribune, and Salon.