Book Review: “The Crane Wife” by CJ Hauser
THE CRANE WOMAN, by CJ Hauser
In 2019, CJ Hauser’s essay “The Crane Womanwent viral, garnering over a million views on The Paris Review’s website. Personally, I considered at least three of these points of view, while I read, re-read aloud (exclaiming “God, she’s good!” at the end), then sent a emailed several friends to ask them to read Hauser’s story about a marriage breakdown as well. engagement, leaving the home she shared with her fiancé in upstate New York and traveling to Texas to seek out whooping cranes for her second novel. Yet when I found out that Hauser had built a whole collection of essays around this piece, I thought, Oh no.
Many books started out as chunks that exploded online, and anyone who’s read at least a few of them knows that doesn’t always work out. It’s a risky proposition to expand something small and wonderful into something big; the punch of the original can get lost in the extra material, the diluted magic. As a reader, I’ve been disappointed too often by books that should have remained perfectly sparkling standalone pieces.
I am happy to say that in this case, I need not have worried.
In “The Crane Wife” — the book, that is — Hauser takes stock of her life from the perspective of her late 30s, expanding her focus beyond the scope of this engagement story. broken. She is keen to better understand how the person she is today differs from the person she thought she would be – and what that difference means for years to come.
As many of us do at some point, she reckon with the versions of her life story that didn’t happen. In one essay, Hauser visits a home on Martha’s Vineyard that belonged to her family, a home that she says would one day be the backdrop for “pictures of me, triumphantly young and pregnant by the seashore, like those of my mother, wearing her one-piece black rubber Swatch watch.
Hauser’s maternal vignette never materialized, but it’s not so much her unlived lives that she mourns. In fact, this imaginary scene represents “the kind of life I don’t even really want anymore, except out of habit.” There’s a kind of heartbreak in the death of a desire, realizing that you don’t want what you once thought. This is what makes this book both universal and fascinating. It’s about breaking habits, consciously developing agency over one’s own destiny, and the relief, wonder, and even joy that might follow that grief.
Hauser constructs his life inventory from deconstructed personal narratives, resulting in a rich reading experience like a complicated dessert – not to be gulped down but to be savored in small bites. As she goes through her personal history, she strings together the scenes without excess connective tissue. An anecdote about her great-grandfather’s love rivalries leads into a story about her first schoolgirl crush, which sits alongside a reflection on her grandparents’ marriage, which is woven into a story about his parents’ court. She trusts us to follow and understand the essential: love can be sweet, but it can also be volatile, even delirious. How can a person understand what kind of love and what kind of life he wants – his relationship with relationships – until he understands from all these stories what love in the world is?
A delightfully wide assortment of literary and cultural digressions enrich Hauser’s reflections, making his book great fun in a smart, melancholy way. A poem by William Carlos Williams, John Belushi’s funeral, Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ – they all have a purpose here, as does an analytical essay from the 1940 film ‘The Philadelphia Story’ . This chapter makes the observation that Katharine Hepburn’s character “can choose who she wants to be…as long as she can choose her husband. The range of options for her identity is limited to those presented by men.
This point is essential, because clarifying his identity “so that I can understand where I end and the people I love begin” is precisely what Hauser wants to do. Trial after trial, she again attempts to draw that boundary, through collisions and separations with lovers, friends and family.
In the Japanese folk tale of the Crane Woman, a crane pretends to be a human woman and convinces a man to marry her. To continue the ruse, she stays awake every night plucking her feathers. “She hopes he doesn’t see what she really is: a bird to be cared for, a bird that can fly, a creature, with creature needs. Every morning, the crane woman is exhausted, but she becomes a woman again. Continuing to become a woman is so much self-erasing work. Hauser looks ready to stop fading.
Recalling an actor she was briefly involved with, Hauser notes, “Sometimes people aren’t so in love that they need an audience.” She is ashamed, at first, when she realizes that she shares this need. In a later story, she recalled nudging another man — the one who would become her fiancé — to compliment her outfit. He replies, “I told you you looked beautiful when you wore that dress last summer. It’s reasonable to assume that I still think you look good in it now. (I also answered this line aloud, but with a word I cannot use in this journal.) She feels both wronged and embarrassed to feel wronged: “There is nothing more humiliating to me than my own desires.”
Hauser needs an audience. And is it so bad? The compulsion to witness is one of the reasons writers write. We expose the stories that make up a life and ask others to see the resulting pattern. The stories may be different for each of us, but the patterns reveal what we have in common as human beings. What a vital sense of connection both writer and reader come out of the experience.
Hauser broke up with the actor. She also broke up with the guy who, among his other flaws, couldn’t muster more than one compliment per dress. But there’s more to these memoirs in the essays than the breakups and much more to the book than the essay that started it all. An intellectually vigorous and emotionally resonant tale of how a self is created over time, “The Crane Wife” will satisfy and inspire anyone who has ever asked, “How did I get here, and what’s going on? he now?”
Mary Laura Philpott is the author of “I Miss You When I Blink” and “Bomb Shelter”.
THE CRANE WOMAN, by CJ Hauser | 320 pages | Doubleday | $27.95