THE CRANE WOMAN, by CJ Hauser
In 2019, CJ Hauser’s essay “The Crane Wife” went viral and was viewed over a million times on The Paris Review’s website. Personally, I was responsible 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 that they also read the story of Hauser about breaking off a wedding engagement, she left the house she shared with her fiancé in upstate New York and went to Texas to research whooping cranes for her second novel. But when I found out that Hauser had built up a whole collection of essays around that piece, I thought: Oh no.
Many books started out as bits blown up online, and anyone who’s read at least a few knows it doesn’t always work. It’s a risky proposition to expand something small and beautiful into something big; the punch of the original can be lost in extra material, the magic diluted. As a reader, I have too often been let down by books that should have remained perfectly sparkling standalone pieces.
I’m happy to say that in this case I didn’t have to worry.
In “The Crane Wife” — the book, that is — Hauser takes stock of her life from the vantage point of her late 30s, broadening her lens beyond the scope of that broken engagement story. She’s determined to better understand how the person she is today is different from the person she thought she would be — and what that difference means for years to come.
As so many of us do at one point or another, she takes into account the versions of her life story that didn’t happen. In an 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 setting for “pictures of me, triumphantly young and pregnant by the sea, like my mother’s, dressed in her black one-piece and rubber Swatch watch.”
Hauser’s maternal vignette never materialized, but it’s not so much her unlived lives that she mourns. In fact, that imaginary scene represents “the kind of life I don’t even really want anymore, except out of habit.” There is a kind of sadness in the death of a desire, in the realization that you don’t want what you once thought you were doing. That makes this book both universal and exciting. It is about breaking habits, about consciously developing freedom of choice about one’s own destiny, and about the relief, wonder and even joy that can follow that grief.
Hauser builds her life inventory from deconstructed personal stories, resulting in a reading experience as rich as a complicated dessert – not to eat, but to enjoy in small bites. As she travels back and forth through personal history, she strings together scenes without excessive connective tissue. An anecdote about her great-grandfather’s romantic rivalry leads to a story about her first crush with schoolgirls, as well as a reflection on her grandparents’ marriage, which is woven into a story about her parents’ courtship. She trusts us to go along and get the gist: love can be sweet, but it can also be fleeting, even delusional. How can a person find out what kind of love and what kind of life she wants – her relationship to relationships – until she finds out from all these stories what in the world loves is†
A delightfully wide assortment of literary and cultural digressions enrich Hauser’s musings, making her book very enjoyable in an intelligent, melancholic way. A poem by William Carlos Williams, the funeral of John Belushi, ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson – they all have a reason to be here, as well as an essay-length analysis of the 1940 film ‘The Philadelphia Story’ That chapter yields the observation that Katharine Hepburn’s character can “choose whoever she wants to be…to the extent that she can choose her husband.” The choices for her identity are limited to those of the men.”
This point is essential, because clarifying her identity “so that I can find out where I end and the people I love begin” is exactly what Hauser intends to do. In essay after essay she tries to draw that line again, through clashes and breaking up with loved ones, friends and family.
In the Japanese folktale of the crane woman, a crane disguises itself as a human woman and convinces a man to marry her. To keep up the ruse, she stays up every night to pluck her feathers. “She hopes he won’t see what she really is: a bird to be cared for, a bird that can fly, a creature with creature needs. Every morning the crane woman is exhausted, but she is a woman again. To continue to be a woman is so much self-erasing work.” Hauser seems ready to stop erasing himself.
Hauser recalls an actor she was briefly involved with: “Sometimes people aren’t so much in love as they need an audience.” At first she feels ashamed when she realizes that she shares that need. In a later story, she recalls nudging another man – the one who would become her betrothed – to compliment her on her outfit. He replies: “I told you you looked beautiful when you wore that dress last summer. It’s fair to assume that I still think you look good.” (I also responded aloud to that line, but with a word I can’t use in this paper.) She feels both shorthanded and ashamed because she feels 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 witness is one of the reasons writers write. We explain the stories that are part of a life and ask others to see the pattern that results. The stories may be different for each of us, but the patterns reveal what we have in common as humans. What a vital sense of belonging both writer and reader get from the experience.
Hauser broke up with the actor. She also broke up with the man who, among his other shortcomings, couldn’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 powerful and emotionally resonant account of how a self is created over time, “The Crane Wife” will satisfy and inspire anyone who has ever asked, “How did I get here and what’s happening now?”
Mary Laura Philpott is the author of ‘I Miss You When I Blink’ and ‘Bomb Shelter’.
THE CRANE WOMAN, by CJ Hauser | 320 pages | Double day | $27.95