Review of The Crane Wife by CJ Hauser

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In an oft-told story from Japanese folklore, an enchanted bird marries a man. There are many variations of the story, but the one CJ Hauser tells in the title essay of his new collection, “The Crane Wife,” involves a creature that plucks its feathers every night to preserve her marriage, to cheat on her husband. making her believe she is human. It is a love of self-effacement, painful to contemplate.

Hauser knows what that sounds like: In this personal essay, which first appeared in the Paris Review in 2019, she writes that she broke off her engagement to a man who treated her badly – ​​in Hauser’s deft, almost comedic account , so. Like the bird, Hauser writhed, trying to rise above behavior she ultimately couldn’t stand. The essay went viral, sparking a bidding war for that book. “The Crane Wife” now appears alongside 16 additional essays, many of which are deeply personal and largely explore issues of love.

The mourning essay is, or perhaps should be, a genre in itself. Getting it right seems to involve an alchemy that weaves personal loss with metaphorical and often everyday parallels, all wrapped into gorgeous prose. Bonus points for easing the pain with a little humor. Hauser’s story of calling off her marriage to her cheating, gaslighting fiancé, then finding grace while studying whooping cranes off the Gulf Coast of Texas, hit all those notes. It brought me favorites in that genre, such as “The Empathy Exams” by Leslie Jamison and “When Things Go Missing” by Kathryn Schulz.

The only marriage book I wish I had read before my wedding

Hauser is a cheerful, energetic, and always friendly writer, and whether the rest of the collection rises to the level of the title essay may be the wrong question. Topics include a visit to a robotics conference, his love of the musical “The Fantasticks,” and various relationships. While the cumulative effect of reading these essays in succession is ultimately affecting, along the way it feels disjointed at times. It’s hard to fully appreciate his deconstruction of the TV show “The X Files,” for example, or his analysis of the classic film, “The Philadelphia Story,” without first revisiting the source material.

This is less a critique 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 the appetite, the mood and the recommendation of the waiter?

Hauser reflects on this issue: “I won’t gather these threads for you,” she says, referring to how the story of accompanying a friend to a fertility clinic is tied to that of a man who drove her through the park during lilac season, or another about breast reduction surgery. “I will not bring them together for myself. It took so much a lot of work it’s up to me to separate them. And I won’t put them back together to be 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 his own rules, both in a personal and narrative sense. In the essay, “The Two-Thousand-Pound-Bee,” for example, she weaves disparate threads that include her grandparents’ idyllic life on Martha’s Vineyard, the Killer Bees “Saturday Night Live” sketches featuring John Belushi and poetic reflections. on his biological clock, in discordant, charming and sometimes gloomy tones. “Will I be young and beautiful and pregnant one day by the sea? I won’t, I won’t, I won’t.

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

Hauser juxtaposes this levity with descriptions of a heartbreaking breakup that left her drained, sobbing in a subway at midnight. In the best New York fashion, she is largely ignored, until a passenger notices the creature in her lap. “Yo, is that a chinchilla? he asks, ignoring her tears. “It’s fresh !” (It was a chinchilla.) Her amusement snaps her out of her runaway, and she teases a metaphor as she watches her drive off in the next car: “It never even occurred to me that a person could open these doors, can move between spaces even as the subway speeds by.

In this collection, Hauser follows that man’s lead, embarking on a journey of exploration very different from the one she had envisioned before setting out on that landmark journey to the Gulf Coast. With its candid explorations of sexuality, grief, and other intimate topics, this book may not be for everyone (it includes a detailed trigger warning). Still, I kept thinking about all the people in my life I couldn’t wait to put “The Crane Wife” into.

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

Double day. 320 pages. $27.95

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