Of Agnes Day, a recent Oxford graduate who works at a small North London magazine called Diplomat’s Week, her best friend Nina charges: “You don’t want to be like everyone else. You want everybody else to be like you.” Tom, an occasional bed partner after her rebound from a sadistic but adored college boyfriend, finds Agnes “overfed with your precious socialism and bloody feminism.” The truth about Agnes is that “with no one around any longer to take responsibility for wasting her time, even she could not bear the thought of doing it for herself.” In sum, she is the cerebral model of the eternal feminine, turned reluctant feminist. Her expectations are too high, and she isn’t living up to them.
Perhaps like Kingsley Amis’ much less brainy Lucky Jim Dixon, Agnes Day, for all his incompetence and her petulance, lacks a disqualifying indifference. They find in the end that they care. Jim got the girl and the job; Agnes gets the job and, judging from the final lines, she may yet get the guy.
Saving Agnes made an impressive debut in 1993. Rachel Cusk writes in a metaphorical style that is suggestive of the Henry James of Portrait of a Lady, but her touch is much lighter. One wonders why it took seven years for this novel to cross the ocean.