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‘The Crane Wife’ is a romantic book for realists

CJ Hauser’s memoir-in-essays explores love, intimacy and grief with refreshing, relatable frankness

(Alla Dreyvitser/The Washington Post)
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In an oft-told story from Japanese folklore, an enchanted bird marries a man. There are many variations of the tale, but the one CJ Hauser relates in the title essay of her new collection, “The Crane Wife,” involves a creature who plucks her feathers out each night to preserve her marriage, to trick her husband into believing she is human. It’s a love of self-erasure, one that is painful to contemplate.

Hauser knows what this feels like: In this personal essay, which first appeared in the Paris Review in 2019, she writes of breaking off her engagement to a man who was treating her badly — in Hauser’s deft telling, almost comically so. Like the bird, Hauser was contorting herself, trying to rise above behavior she could not, in the end, abide. The essay went viral, spawning a bidding war for this book. “The Crane Wife” now appears alongside 16 additional essays, many of them deeply personal, and largely exploring matters of love.

The grief essay is, or perhaps ought to be, a genre unto itself. Getting it right appears to involve an alchemy that braids personal loss with metaphorical — and often quotidian — parallels, all in gorgeous prose. Bonus points for leavening the pain with a bit of humor. Hauser’s story of calling off her marriage to her cheating, gaslighting fiance, then finding grace while studying the whooping crane off the Gulf Coast of Texas, hit all of these notes. It brought to mind favorites in this genre, such as Leslie Jamison’s “The Empathy Exams” and Kathryn Schulz’s “When Things Go Missing.”

The one book about marriage I wish I’d read before my wedding

Hauser is a playful, energetic and always likable writer, and to ask whether the rest of the collection rises to the level of the title essay is possibly the wrong question. Subjects include a visit to a robotics conference, her love for the musical “The Fantasticks” and various relationships. While the cumulative effect of reading these essays in succession is ultimately affecting, along the way it sometimes feels disjointed. It is hard to fully appreciate her deconstruction of the television show “The X Files,” for example, or her analysis of the classic film “The Philadelphia Story” without first revisiting the source material.

This is less a criticism than an existential question about the nature of essay collections: Are they meant to be read sequentially, or are they more like a restaurant menu, where one chooses according to appetite, mood and the waiter’s recommendation?

Hauser leans into this problem: “I will not bring these threads together for you,” she declares, referring to how the story about accompanying a friend to a fertility clinic ties into one about a man who drove her through the park in lilac season, or another about contemplating breast reduction surgery. “I will not bring them together for myself. It took so much work for me to separate them. And I won’t put them back together for the sake of being narratively satisfying …”

Life these days is a symphony of grief and celebration. Kathryn Schulz puts it into words.

Point taken. Hauser, who teaches creative writing at Colgate University and is the author of two novels, sets her own rules, both in the personal and narrative sense. In the essay “The Two-Thousand-Pound-Bee,” for example, she weaves disparate threads that include her grandparents’ idyllic-seeming life on Martha’s Vineyard, the “Saturday Night Live” Killer Bees skits featuring John Belushi and poetic reflections on her biological clock, in discordant, lovely and sometimes mournful tones. “Will I ever be young and beautiful and pregnant by the sea? I will not, I will not, I will not.”

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One standout essay, “The Fox Farm,” explores the author’s house obsession, and the meaning of home. Endearingly, she interviews a handful of children to ask what their ideal homes might look like. One replies, “I would have thirty ducks,” another “draws a space station in which there is one room absolutely full of golden retrievers.” Another child says only, “I will sleep on an apple.”

Hauser juxtaposes this lightness with descriptions of a wrenching breakup that left her gutted, sobbing in a subway at midnight. In the best New York City fashion, she is largely ignored, until one passenger notices the creature on her lap. “Yo, is that a chinchilla?” he asks, ignoring her tears. “That’s fresh!” (It was a chinchilla.) His amusement pulls her out of her fugue, and she teases a metaphor out of watching his departure into the next car: “It had never even occurred to me that a person could open those doors, could move between spaces even as the subway was barreling along.”

In this collection, Hauser follows that man’s lead, embarking on a journey of exploration that is very different from the one she had envisioned before leaving for that pivotal trip to the Gulf Coast. With its frank explorations of sexuality, grief and other intimate subjects, this book might not be for everyone. (It includes a detailed trigger warning.) Yet I kept thinking about all of the people in my life into whose hands I can’t wait to put “The Crane Wife.”

Susan Coll’s sixth novel, “Bookish People,” will be published in August.

The Crane Wife

A Memoir in Essays

By CJ Hauser

Doubleday. 320 pp. $27.95

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