Book Review: “The Crane Wife” by CJ Hauser


In 2019, CJ Hauser’s essay “The Crane Wife” went viral, garnering more than a million views on The Paris Review’s website. Personally, I accounted for at least three of those views, as I read, reread aloud (exclaiming, “God, she’s good!” at the end), and then emailed several friends to demand they also read Hauser’s story about breaking off a wedding engagement, leaving the home she shared with her fiancé in upstate New York and going to Texas to research whooping cranes for her second novel. Still, when I found out Hauser had built a whole essay collection around that piece, I thought, Oh no.

Plenty of books have started as pieces that blew up online, and anyone who has read at least a few of them knows it doesn’t always work. It’s a risky proposition to expand something small and wonderful into something big; the punch of the original can get lost in additional material, the magic diluted. As a reader, I’ve been let down too often by books that should have remained perfectly sparkling standalone pieces.

I’m happy to say that in this case, I needn’t have worried.

In “The Crane Wife” — the book, that is — Hauser takes stock of her life from the vantage of her late 30s, widening her lens beyond the scope of that story about a broken engagement. She’s hellbent on better understanding how the person she is now differs from the person she thought she would be — and what that difference means for the years that lie ahead.

As so many of us do at some point, she reckons with the versions of her life story that didn’t happen. In one essay, Hauser visits a house on Martha’s Vineyard that used to belong to her family, a house she assumed would one day be the backdrop for “pictures of me, triumphantly young and pregnant by the sea, like those of my mother, wearing her black one piece and rubber Swatch watch.”

Hauser’s maternal vignette never materialized, but it’s not so much her not-lived lives she mourns. In fact, that imaginary scene represents “the kind of life I don’t even really want anymore, except for out of habit.” There’s a kind of grief in the death of a desire, in realizing you don’t want what you once thought you did. That’s what makes this book both universal and exciting. It’s about the breaking of habits, about consciously developing agency over one’s own fate, and about the relief, wonder and even joy that might follow that grief.

Hauser builds her life’s inventory out of deconstructed personal narratives, resulting in a reading experience that’s rich like a complicated dessert — not for wolfing down but for savoring in small bites. As she travels back and forth through personal history, she strings scenes together without excessive connective tissue. An anecdote about her great-grandfather ‘s romantic rivalries leads to a story about her her own first schoolgirl crush, which sits beside a reflection on her grandparents ‘marriage her, which is woven into a story about her parents’courtship her . She trusts us to follow along and get the gist: Love can be sweet, but it can also be volatile, even delusional. How can a person figure out what kind of love and what kind of life she wants — her relationship to relationships — until she figures out from all these stories what in the world love is?

A delightfully wide assortment of literary and cultural digressions enrich Hauser’s musings, making her book a lot of fun in a brainy, melancholic way. A William Carlos Williams poem, John Belushi’s funeral, Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” — they all have a reason for being here, as does an essay-length analysis of the 1940 film “The Philadelphia Story.” That chapter yields the observation that Katharine Hepburn’s character “can choose who she wants to be … insomuch as she can choose her husband her. The range of options for her identity is limited to those presented by the men.”

This point is key, because clarifying her identity “so that I can figure out where I end and the people I love begin” is precisely what Hauser is out to do. In essay after essay, she attempts to draw that boundary again, through collisions and come-aparts with lovers, friends and family.

In the Japanese folk tale of the crane wife, a crane masquerades as a human woman and convinces a man to marry her. To keep up the ruse, she stays up every night plucking out her feathers. “She hopes that he will not see what she really is : a bird who must be cared for, a bird capable of flight, a creature, with creature needs. Every morning the crane wife is exhausted, but she is a woman again. To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work.” Hauser seems ready to stop erasing herself.

Remembering an actor she was briefly involved with, Hauser notes, “Sometimes people are not so much in love as they are in need of an audience.” She is ashamed, at first, when she realizes she shares that need. In a later story, she recalls nudging another man — the one who would become her fiancé her — to give her a compliment on her outfit her. He answers: “I told you that you looked nice when you wore that dress last summer. It’s reasonable to assume I still think you look nice in it now.” (I responded aloud to that line, too, but with a word I cannot use in this newspaper.) She feels both shortchanged and embarrassed about feeling shortchanged: “There is nothing more humiliating to me than my own desires.”

Hauser does need an audience. And is that so wrong? The compulsion to be witnessed is one reason writers write. We lay out the stories that make up a life and ask others to behold the pattern that results. 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 get out of the experience.

Hauser broke up with the actor. She also broke up with the fellow who, among his other shortcomings his, could n’t muster more than one compliment per dress. But there’s more to this memoir in essays than breakups and so much more to the book than the essay that started it all. An intellectually vigorous and emotionally resonant account of how a self gets created over time, “The Crane Wife” will satisfy and inspire anyone who has ever asked, “How did I get here, and what happens now?”

Mary Laura Philpott is the author of “I Miss You When I Blink” and “Bomb Shelter.”

THE CRANE WIFE, by CJ Hauser | 320 pp. | Doubleday | $27.95

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