Book of the Month: February 2015


Outline by Rachel Cusk

Rachel Cusk was already a widely acclaimed writer in England when she debuted her novel The Country Life in America in 2000. Introducing my book clubs to the laugh-out-loud comedy of manners with nods to favorite classics was a pleasure. I can still close my eyes and vividly recall scenes from that novel. I also remember her descriptions of families with all of their inherent messes. Like I have grown up and changed in over a decade, so has Rachel Cusk. Her latest novel, Outline, is our February 2015 Book of the Month.

Outline is simultaneously a break from her previous style and a continuation of her own life exploration. It’s a novel composed of conversations, ten to be precise and as in life we learn through listening to others and self-reflecting. She has brilliantly created an invisible wall between fiction, memoir and autobiography. Outline examines how we present ourselves to others through storytelling. The character Faye explains, “This anti-description, for want of a better way of putting it, had made something clear to her by a reverse kind of exposition: while he talked she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank.” Yet blank as it is, this empty outline gives “a sense of who she now was.”

Outline has all the elements of life experience that make a book club book so relatable. Having Faye be a novelist and writing teacher brings in the added bonus of being able to discuss the craft and power of writing.


A man and a woman are seated next to each other on a plane. They get to talking—about their destination, their careers, their families. Grievances are aired, family tragedies discussed, marriages and divorces analyzed. An intimacy is established as two strangers contrast their own fictions about their lives.

Rachel Cusk’s Outline is a novel in ten conversations. Spare and stark, it follows a novelist teaching a course in creative writing during one oppressively hot summer in Athens. She leads her students in storytelling exercises. She meets other visiting writers for dinner and discourse. She goes swimming in the Ionian Sea with her neighbor from the plane. The people she encounters speak volubly about themselves: their fantasies, anxieties, pet theories, regrets, and longings. And through these disclosures, a portrait of the narrator is drawn by contrast, a portrait of a woman learning to face a great loss.

Outline takes a hard look at the things that are hardest to speak about. It brilliantly captures conversations, investigates people’s motivations for storytelling, and questions their ability to ever do so honestly or unselfishly. In doing so it bares the deepest impulses behind the craft of fiction writing. This is Rachel Cusk’s finest work yet, and one of the most startling, brilliant, original novels of recent years.


Rachel Cusk is the author of three memoirs — A Life’s Work, The Last Supper, and Aftermath — and seven novels: Saving Agnes, winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award; The Temporary; The Country Life, which won a Somerset Maugham Award; The Lucky Ones; In the Fold; Arlington Park; and The Bradshaw Variations. She was chosen as one of Granta’s 2003 Best of Young British Novelists. She lives in London.

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