No close relationship is totally straightforward; that’s impossible whenever two people entwine themselves around each other for whatever purpose. But romantic relationships, and the relationships we have with ourselves as beings who may get into romantic relationships, are fraught with all manner of expectations and suppositions—often implicit and inherited from our families and/or the society that surrounds us. That’s the position novelist CJ Houser takes as she dips into nonfiction with her first collection of essays, The Crane Wife.
Hauser is very good at falling in love and equally good at experiencing heartbreak, if these fifteen essays are to be believed. As a white, cisgender and bisexual woman, Hauser’s perspective does come largely from that identity perspective, but her essays are less about the people she orbits around and more about how that orbit came to have the shape it does. In the titular essay, she reflects on the relationship she ended ten days before their wedding date, and compares it to a version of a Japanese folk tale of the same name as the essay and book. Versions of this folk tale vary widely, but Hauser’s is about a crane who becomes the wife of a man, but to stay in human form she must pluck out her feathers each night, leaving herself bloodied and bare—but in a form pleasing, or at least acceptable, to her partner. Hauser sees herself reflected all too well in that story, recounting how she let her fiancé’s ambivalence and bad behavior alike go unchallenged, diminishing herself in the process.
She finds more points of connection with rescue robots attempting to open doors in a DARPA challenge, Katherine Hepburn’s character in The Philidelphia Story, the tension between Mulder and Scully, and Jim Belushi’s grave, as well as ruminating on how a person connects with a home and the notion of “should” in a relationship—and the guilt, and pain, that can follow.
Although this is definitely a book about relationships, or about things that are about relationships, the relationships themselves rarely take center stage, but rather function as a sort of backdrop for her personal reflection. Which is good for several reasons, not least of which because otherwise this would be upwards of 300 pages of explosive Reddit posts sure to end up on half a dozen TikTokers’ replay videos. Hauser’s voice, too, ensures the subject matter never gets too heavy, although there’s plenty of heartbreak within these pages. Reading The Crane Wife is like hearing a good friend gloss over some pretty dark details of a story to get to the funny part. The part where she makes a realization about her life. The part where she explains why she’s making X life change.
A recurring theme is the picking apart of some of Hauser’s favorite pieces of pop culture, with many spoilers included for anyone who hasn’t gotten around to reading 400-year-old books, or seeing 80-year-old movies or 60-year-old musicals or 30-year-old television shows. This is no mere gender-studies-class examination of how problematic such-and-such piece of media is, but rather the effect of those performed roles and what that says about the people who dreamed them up, the people who watched them then, the people who watch them now. For Hepburn’s character, for example, Hauser points out the choice between her three suitors is really a choice for which version of herself she wants to be, and who she wants to be seen as. In the context of Hauser’s own attempts at solving the question of identity with her choice in partner, it’s a question thar resonates.
I loved the theme, accidental or intentional, of dissecting entertainment to understand emotion, but perhaps my favorite single essay is the messiest of all. Uncoupled, near the end of the book, brings several threads of heartbreak together in a seeming Gordian knot of relationships, kids or the lack thereof, body image, and family, found and of origin alike. However, the reasons that I love it can easily be why someone else hates it: it is frenetic and disjointed, and has an intentionally unsatisfying ending.
“I will not bring these threads together for you. I will not bring them together for myself. It took so much work for me to separate the. And I won’t put them back together for the sake of being narratively satisfying,” Hauser tells us, and asks, “What were you told had to happen in a story for it to feel complete?” The dissatisfaction is inherent in the imperfection of life. The song can only be completed at the end of a life, and only then in a way that suits that single life and no other. In accepting its messiness, though, it counterintuitively feels solid. It feels whole. It feels like something you can carry with you, a light against when other messy things come.