CJ Hauser’s The Crane Wife explores how we navigate love

What would it mean to give up the desire for a life we ​​don’t live? That maybe we don’t even really want to, if we’re being honest? By “we” I mean women; By “life” I mean the so-called “happy ending,” complete with the trappings of marriage, kids, and a white picket fence.

CJ Hauser’s new memoirs-in-essays, The Crane Woman, revels in these questions. “What were you told needed to happen in a story for it to feel complete?” she asks. In 17 brilliant pieces throughout the book, Hauser, a novelist who teaches at Colgate University, challenges our assumptions from every angle. She “autopsies” previous relationships to find out what caused things to go wrong. She examines her family history for hidden clues. She finds herself constantly questioning her own beliefs.

In a series of vignettes, Hauser explores love and relationships across generations. How did your mother feel on her first date with the man who would become her father? The answers often leave Hauser unsatisfied. “Why is what’s missing here what I need to know most?” Hauser ponders whether these women—their grandmother, their mother—understood their power in choosing the trajectory of their marriage. What lessons had they learned? What would you share? “I want to learn from what went wrong in the past, but sometimes everything that’s worth knowing seems to have been blacked out,” Hauser writes. “As if ignorance were the only thing that enabled each succeeding generation to fall in love, however brief, and bring forth the next one.” This tumbling, in and out of love, structures the collection.

Calling Hauser “honest” and “vulnerable” feels inappropriate. She embraces and even celebrates her flaws, and she revels in being a provocateur.

The Crane Wife, Hauser’s cover essay about breaking up their engagement and going ten days later to study the whooping crane, was published in The Paris Review in 2019 and quickly attracted over a million views. In it, she describes the nagging feeling that something is wrong in her relationship — and despite the fact that her partner wasn’t able (to put it kindly) to deliver the kind of love she needed, her own dislike for it being “needy” stood in the way of finding the truth:

“I hated that I needed more than that from him,” she writes. “There is nothing more humbling to me than my own desires. Nothing makes me hate myself more than being a nuisance and not being self-sufficient.”

In the Japanese folk tale for which the book is named, the crane woman plucked her feathers every night to become the “woman” desired by her husband. “Becoming a woman again and again is so much self-extinguishing work,” writes Hauser. “She never sleeps. She plucks out her feathers, one at a time.”

It is ironic that Hauser, a strong, clever, capable woman, should refer to the Crane Woman’s contortions. She felt helpless in her own romantic relationship. I don’t have a single friend who hasn’t felt this in some form, but putting it into words is risky: we were taught to subdue our needs and desires; putting others first; that we should earn men’s affection by “being the cool girl,” as journalist Anne Helen Petersen once remarked. If we then fail, the joke is on us.

Hauser left this relationship. Still, this collection isn’t about proper happy endings. It’s a constant quest for self-discovery. “I got out of the problem I was living in, but that didn’t mean I had answers to my questions,” she writes.

The Crane Woman: A Treatise in Essays

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Much has been written about the themes Hauser unearths here, but her perspective is unique, in a startling way. Many narratives still position the search for the perfect match as a measure of whether we have lived a successful life. The Crane Woman renounces it. Because of this, Hauser’s worldview seems fresh and even radical.

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