May 2010

Beth Harrington

fiction

The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk

In 2001, Rachel Cusk published A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, which chronicles pregnancy, childbirth, and infant-rearing through glasses that are decidedly less than rose-colored. The book drew predictably polarized responses with some readers heralding Cusk for addressing the harsher realities of motherhood without falling back on pat clichés like "but it was all worth it," and others castigating her for a seeming lack of maternal feeling. Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise that nearly ten years later she would focus her creative energies on imagining the life of a stay-at-home-father.

In The Bradshaw Variations, Thomas Bradshaw relinquishes his job to stay home with his eight-year-old daughter Alexa, after his wife, Tonie, is appointed head of the English department at the university where she works. Readers are introduced not only to the Bradshaws as a nuclear unit, but also to their respective extended families. Thomas is the middle child of three; his older brother, Howard, is a successful entrepreneur with a trophy wife and three children of his own. Leo, his younger brother, “whose perfectly comfortable life Thomas perceives through a mist of doubt,” has two children who are astutely aware of their parents’ drinking habits, which they have no qualms about pointing out to their grandparents. Tonie has an uneasy relationship with her mother, who seems to favor her older sister and expresses disapproval at the recent role reversal in the Bradshaw household.

The story unfolds in a series of vignettes, narrated in third-person, with perspective shifting from person to person in each chapter. The characters -- perhaps too many of them -- clean their offices, shop for coats, and attend parties in groups or by themselves. Olga, a Polish boarder who lives with the Bradshaws, works as a cleaning woman in a hospital and develops a relationship with an immigrant man who works as a porter on the maternity unit. For the most part, the events do not seem sequentially linked to one another, but rather contain details that gradually reveal the characters more intimately to readers. The novel is driven more by character than by plot. Thus, it lacks a certain momentum required of a page-turner, yet can prove quietly engrossing for readers with the time and patience to devote to it.

In place of straightforward literary entertainment, The Bradshaw Variations is more valuable for providing a thought-provoking sociological depiction of an unorthodox caretaking arrangement that is growing increasingly popular as gender roles become more flexible. However, even in this context, readers may find that certain practical issues are not addressed in the family discourse. For one, there is no mention of the economic constraints of a single-income household. The Bradshaws are not described as rich, but neither does money ever come up as an issue for them. Likewise, readers may be skeptical as to whether a stay-at-home parent is really necessary in a family where the only child is eight years-old and thus spends a full day at school.

It is only in the last few chapters of the book that the plot comes hurtling out at the reader so fast as to leave him or her scrambling to make sense of what has just happened and how to interpret it in the context the novel presents. Dual lapses in judgment on the parts of both Thomas and Tonie render Alexa on the verge of death. The novel’s conclusion has them reconsidering their new-fangled arrangement and reverting back to more traditional ways.

One can only speculate as to what Cusk’s intention was in having this progressive arrangement fail for her characters. Is she cheekily taking the side of the antifeminist by implying that a family falls apart when a woman relinquishes her traditional responsibility? (In a 2008 piece for The Guardian describing the reaction A Life’s Work received from mothers, Cusk wrote, “I find that I like women less than I did.”) Perhaps the resolution of this book is her way of lashing out at those who judged her so harshly for writing her perspective on parenthood by latching them shut in the glass box of feminine virtue that they so smugly constructed for themselves. Conversely, Cusk penned another article for The Guardian in 2009 in which she grappled, as countless other feminist-minded writers have, with the issues attendant in being a female author. She writes that the female novel is “the book of repetition, about fiction that concerns itself with what is eternal and unvarying, with domesticity and motherhood and family life.” Therefore, it may be that Thomas’s failure in the domestic sphere is Cusk’s symbolic attempt to drive a man out of the domain of women in the same way that women are so frequently marginalized and devalued in the spheres of men. Choosing between these two possibilities, the reader can only make an educated guess.

The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374100810
240 Pages