by Rachel Cusk

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Last Updated on January 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1187

Outline features a British writer, Faye, during a weeklong trip to Athens one summer to teach a writing course to Greek students. Faye narrates the novel, which is divided into ten chapters. Each chapter focuses on a conversation Faye has with a different person she encounters while in Athens.

Chapter 1

The first of these conversations is with an older gentleman Faye is seated next to on her flight from London to Athens at the start of her trip. She speaks to this man—whom she only refers to as her “neighbor” throughout the novel—the entire airplane voyage. Faye’s neighbor shares the broad strokes of his life: he was born in Greece to a well-off family who then moved to London when he was a child and sent him and his siblings to elite British schools. He is now a businessman who splits his time between London and Athens.

Her neighbor reflects on love, saying that it is the primary way people can rebirth themselves. He explains that he has been married twice: his first marriage was to a youthful love whom he regards as the love of his life, and his second to a beautiful yet vapid woman who eventually divorced him and took most of his money. He says he had not realized how hard life would be without his first wife. Faye thinks he is not fair to the second wife and not quite balanced in his retrospection of the past; she is concerned about establishing the truth within reality. She also reveals in this chapter that she has two sons and has recently been divorced.

Chapter 2

Faye describes a conversation she has with Ryan, another writing teacher at the workshop. Ryan is an Irish writer with a jaded view on life and his own mildly successful writing career. He objectifies the female waitstaff while getting a drink with Faye and explains that he and his wife allow one another to flirt with others.

Chapter 3

Faye describes the apartment she is renting in Athens from a woman named Clelia. The house is so clean and organized that Faye experiences it as impersonal. She opens drawers and cabinets in an attempt to find something secretive or telling about Clelia, but she does not find any such thing.

Chapter 4

Faye meets up with the neighbor from the airplane, who drives her forty minutes outside of Athens to where his boat is docked. They go out on the water, and he tells her about his children and divulges that he had a third marriage—which also ended in divorce—to a very “puritanical” woman.

Faye goes swimming off the side of the boat and muses about the impulse and desire to “be free.” She believes that this desire is ultimately impossible to achieve, yet she finds it a compelling one nonetheless. She also studies the family on an adjacent boat as they enjoy the afternoon. She establishes a difference between being immersed in a situation, as she imagines the family is, and observing it from the outside, as she is. She wonders which experience is closer to reality. Stemming from this analysis, she says to her neighbor that some things, such as a shared vision of reality, cannot be said to actually exist. Her neighbor says that this could be one definition of love.

Chapter 5

Faye gets dinner with a Greek friend of hers she knew in London, a book editor named Paniotis. Paniotis’s friend Angeliki, a passionate author who recently received acclaim for her first novel, also joins them. Faye listens to Paniotis and Angeliki discuss the difference between how they thought elements of their lives, such as marriage or jobs, would be and the reality of how hard and unfortunate they actually are.

Chapter 6

Faye describes the first meeting of her weeklong writing class. She asks the students what they noticed while walking to the class that day. The entire class consists of the students responding one by one. The students are of varied age, physical appearance, and personality. One boy, Georgeou, who is fifteen and has long hair, is particularly energetic, talkative, and bright.

Chapter 7

Faye goes on a second boating trip with her neighbor. He remains committed to the allure of his first marriage but eventually admits that the obstacle that ruined it was when his wife awakened him from a nap to ask if he was having an affair, which he says he was.

Faye sees him in a negative light after this admission. He tries to kiss her, but she does not return the kiss. She says she is only looking for friendship right now. She asks him how he cannot see the grand irony about his ideas on love and relationships: if what he is drawn to is someone’s mystery, as soon as he knows them well, he will certainly cease to love them.

Chapter 8

While out at a bar with her friend Elena and a celebrated lesbian poet, Faye tells the two that she found the kiss from the neighbor repellent and that all she wants is to feel ambivalent about things. The neighbor texts her that he misses her, but Faye does not reply.

Chapter 9

Back in the writing classroom, Faye asks her students to share their assignment, which was to write a story about an animal. As the students are sharing their stories, Faye receives a phone call from a mortgage company in England where she had submitted an application to refinance her home. The agent on the phone tells her that she did not receive the loan.

Chapter 10

It is Faye’s final day in Athens, and when she arrives home to the apartment she is renting from Clelia, she finds another woman there. It is Anne, who is the next writing instructor at the workshop. The two of them have a conversation before Faye has to get to the airport for her flight back to England.

Anne says she struggles to write because she feels that all writing can ultimately be summed up by one descriptive word. Anne also describes a meeting she had with her airplane neighbor on the way over, a diplomat recently stationed in Athens. She describes him as a small man and recounts wondering what it would be like to sleep with him. Like Faye, Anne is recently divorced.

The novel ends with Faye receiving a text from the neighbor asking if she would like to see him one more time, but Faye replies that she can’t, because she is going sightseeing with a friend. The neighbor writes that he will thus spend the day in “solicitude,” to which Faye asks if he means “solitude.”

This ending implies that each character, including Faye, is defined in relation to the solitude of their lives. Despite each character’s attempts to be in healthy or fulfilling marriages, relationships, or other external relations with the world, they ultimately are left with the instability of those relationships. What remains stable and balanced is the sense of self that each character carries with them, despite how any external relationships may have unraveled.

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