In 2019, an American novelist of slender renown named CJ Hauser scored a viral hit with an essay about calling off her wedding and embarking on an ornithological field trip. The Crane Wife described a relationship in which she was cheated on more than once, though what finally brought her to her senses was the realisation that she couldn’t sustain the ludicrously “low-maintenance” persona demanded by her husband-to-be. On one occasion, he even presented her with a blank birthday card, explaining that it could be filed away and reused later.
Ten days after ending the relationship, Hauser headed to the Gulf Coast, tagging along with a team studying the whooping crane, one of the world’s longest-lived birds. If you want to save a species, she has learned, you need to pay close attention to what it requires to live – wolfberries and crabs in this case, all of which had to be counted. “If there was a kind of rehab for people ashamed to have needs, maybe this was it,” she mused.
The Crane Wife now sits as the title piece in a new collection billed as a “memoir in essays”, more than half of which are being published for the first time. The book brings that same frank, funny gaze to bear on a succession of other doomed romances, mining them for complicated truths about how the love stories we inherit, consumer and tell come to shape our experience and expectations. Think of it as rehab for road-weary romantics.
There’s Hauser’s high school boyfriend – “first love, first sex, first wounds”. There’s the man who gives her a novelty blanket with a screenshot of their opening Tinder gambits woven into it, and then abandons her on a desert island. There is an abbreviated exploration of bisexuality that still causes emotional pain, 15 years on. There’s the divorcé with whom she gets stuck in a mirror maze on Valentine’s Day, in a shopping mall called Destiny, and who is naturally still in thrall to his ex.
She dubs that last one Maxim, after Daphne du Maurier’s Mr de Winter, and Rebecca becomes a prism through which Hauser examines her own feelings about staying in the home her predecessor furnished so tastefully. Elsewhere, she uses The Philadelphia Storythe work of Shirley Jackson and The X-Files to show how easy it is to confuse choosing a partner with determining your own identity, say, or how pernicious the notion that opposites attract can prove.
As an author and creative writing professor, Hauser is hyper-receptive to narrative, but she makes an enthralling case for the extent to which the irresistible urge to “storify” love — to seek drama and color — can throw us all off-course. As women, there’s no escaping the gendered nature of much of what makes up our narrative trousseaus: Hauser recalls, for instance, old family yarns from which the female viewpoint is frustratingly redacted, “stories that hid the ways women knew in their blood what was wrong or right. Hid truth behind the scrim of romance or, worse, fate.”
Of course, as the breakups pile up, what a person is left with is yet more stories. “You can get rid of everything else, the phone numbers and the photos, and still you will have these stories banging around inside you,” Hauser notes. The question of what they all add up to when your dating life somehow extends into your late 30s and beyond, by which time you’re most likely a quite different person, becomes one of the collection’s more intriguing preoccupations.
A zany range of other subjects do find their way in – breast reduction surgery and humanoid first responders, perfect circles and chosen families. For the most part, Hauser weaves them back into her core theme, her own evolving understanding of love, and though it can feel strained, it’s predominantly mesmerising to watch. Does a book so relentlessly focused on one person’s pursuit of intimacy feel claustrophobic at times? Inevitably, but ultimately these essays throw open the windows, inviting us to redefine what constitutes a love story.
Of course, books about single women invariably end with them being paired off. There’s no spoiler alert required to say that one of the most invigorating aspects of this tirelessly interrogative collection is that its author remains unpartnered to the very last page. As she and the reader both can appreciate, however, this doesn’t mean that her life is without love, and it certainly isn’t the same as being alone.