What would it mean to shed the desire for a life we do not lead? That we may not even truly want, if we are honest? By “we,” I mean women; by “life,” I mean the so-called “happy ending,” complete with the trappings of marriage, children, and a white picket fence.
C.J. Hauser’s new memoir-in-essays, The Crane Wife, luxuriates in these questions. “What were you told had to happen in a story for it to feel complete?” she asks. In 17 brilliant pieces, which build throughout the book, Hauser, a novelist who teaches at Colgate University, questions our assumptions from every angle. She “autopsies” past relationships for what caused things to go awry. She investigates her family history for hidden clues. She catches herself, continuously, interrogating her own beliefs.
In a series of vignettes, Hauser explores love and relationships across generations. What did her mother feel on her first date with the man who would become her father? Frequently, the answers leave Hauser unsatisfied. “Why is the very thing that is missing here the bit I most need to know?” Hauser mulls over whether these women—her grandmother, her mother— understood their power in choosing the trajectory of their marriages. What lessons had they learned? What would they pass on? “I want to learn from what went wrong in the past, but sometimes it seems everything worth knowing has been redacted,” Hauser writes. “As if ignorance is the only thing that allowed each successive generation to tumble into love, however briefly, and spawn the next.” This tumbling, in and out of love, structures the collection.
Calling Hauser “honest” and “vulnerable” feels inadequate. She embraces and even celebrates her flaws, and she revels in being a provocateur.
“The Crane Wife,” Hauser’s title essay about exiting her engagement and, te10n days later, heading out on an excursion to research the whooping crane, was published in The Paris Review in 2019, quickly attracting over a million views. In it, she describes the nagging feeling that something in her relationship isn’t quite right—yet, despite the fact that her partner was (to put it kindly) not able to deliver the kind of love she needed, her own aversion to being “needy” stood in the way of seeing the truth:
“I hated that I needed more than this from him,” she writes. “There is nothing more humiliating to me than my own desires. Nothing that makes me hate myself more than being burdensome and less than self-sufficient.”
In the Japanese folktale after which the book is named, the crane wife plucked her feathers each night in order to become the “woman” desired by her husband. “To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work,” Hauser writes. “She never sleeps. She plucks out her feathers, one by one.”
It is an irony that Hauser, a strong, smart, capable woman, relates to the crane wife’s contortions. She felt helpless in her own romantic relationship. I don’t have one female friend who has not felt some version of this, but putting it into words is risky: We have been taught to subjugate our needs and desires; to put others first; that we should earn men’s affection by “being the cool girl,” as journalist Anne Helen Petersen once observed. Then if we fail, the joke is on us.
Hauser did leave that relationship. Still, this collection is not about neat, happy endings. It’s a constant search for self-discovery. “I walked out of the problem I was living in, but that didn’t mean I had answers to my questions,” she writes.
Much has been written on the themes Hauser excavates here, yet her perspective is singular, startlingly so. Many narratives still position finding the perfect match as a measure of whether we’ve led successful lives. The Crane Wife dispenses with that. For that reason, Hauser’s worldview feels fresh and even radical.
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