Rachel Cusks’ The Country Life was a baffling novel. Twenty-nine-year-old Stella Benson abruptly leaves her life in London–including her parents and some man named Edward–and hightails it to a small village in rural England where she will function as an au pair to the wealthy Madden family for their disabled teenage son Martin. After she arrives, she discovers the family has secrets of its own and her own story begins to emerge piece by piece.
I feel like I made the novel sound more interesting than it was. This novel truly baffled me. At times, I wasn’t sure what decade we were in because Stella seemed distressingly naive. She has no money b/c she left London without her checkbook. She walks in the broiling sun and becomes horribly burnt. She encounters weird villagers and conflict over the public footpath that runs through their property. Is Mrs. Madden committing incest with one of her sons? Is Mr. Madden crazy? And what are these visions of falling over a balcony in Rome that Stella keeps remembering? And who is Edward? I swear, at one point I wondered if the book was an updated version of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw since sexual tension seemed to be everywhere. Was it a take on Jane Eyre? Stella as Jane accused at every turn of being attracted to Mr. Madden/Rochester. Now if only the crazy Mrs. Madden would conveniently expire. I will admit that Stella seems to get herself into the most ridiculous situations.
The Publishers Weekly review declared Stella to be lovable, and I don’t see it. No one in the book was lovable. The characters were stereotypes out of a 19th century novel down to the son who liked to seduce the help. All the women hated Stella, and Stella hated all of them. Martin, her charge, seemed at first to be awful but turns out to be the only one with any sense in the book.
I could have appreciated the mockery of British governess tales if the novel hadn’t ended so…abruptly. Stella’s secret is revealed all at once by a friend of the Maddens and…that’s it. Big deal. She sits down to dinner like nothing has happened and that’s the response from everyone else as well. I guess I felt like the novel was setting us up for something a bit more profound. Stella obviously wants a new life, but other than some early rumblings about her family, I’m not so sure why she thinks her life is all bad. It’s not except in her own mind. I feel like this book is trying to be two things at once: a serious rumination about leaving everything you know behind and starting over to build a more authentic “you” and a humorous look at country life and the eccentrics that live there. In trying to do both, it does neither well.
I will admit that there was one line in the book that made me gasp. It’s what Stella said to the housekeeper upon delivering her coffee, and it shocked me with its crudeness (I liked it) and seemed to briefly destroy the dream-like atmosphere hanging over the book.
Maybe I need to cogitate on it a bit more. I read it in about 6 hours, so maybe that was too fast? One review said that Cusk is emulating Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm (which is both a great book and a great film), so I recommend that instead.
And yes, I did see something nasty in the woodshed 🙂