Day 530: Literary Wives! The Crane Wife

Cover for The Crane WifeToday is another Literary Wives review, where the wives explore the depiction of wives in contemporary fiction. Please be sure to check out the reviews of all the Literary Wives.

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George is awakened in the middle of the night by a strange cry. When he looks out the window, he is astonished to see a wounded crane in his garden. He removes an arrow from the crane’s wing, and the crane flies away.

The next day he is doodling at work when he gets the urge to cut up an old book. He makes a paper crane. When a woman named Kumiko arrives at the shop, she takes away his crane and unites it with a tile of feathers she has made, creating a wonderful sculpture.

Women have always left George, deeming him to be too nice. Kumiko, though, quickly becomes his lover and promises to be his wife.

George’s daughter Amanda is feeling lonely. Because of her anger and acerbic wit, she has never kept her friends. It is beginning to look like her friendship with coworkers Rachel and Mei is going south. She loves her ex-husband Henri, but her anger drove him away. Only her four-year-old son JP and her father seem to stay.

The stories of these characters are periodically interrupted by a fable about the love/hate relationship between a goddess and a volcano. Eventually, these two threads intersect, overlaying the everyday story with mythic and magical overtones.

I was much more interested in the everyday story of George, Amanda, and Kumiko than I was in the mythic elements, which at times seemed to be trying too hard to be profound. The everyday story was touching and sometimes funny, the character Mehmet being particularly amusing.

What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife? In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

There are two wives in the story. One is Amanda, who loves Henri. But her self-hatred is so strong that she feels something must be wrong with Henri for him to love her back. So, she fights with him until he leaves her. Eventually, she has to settle for being his friend.

Although she and George never actually marry, the other wife is Kumiko, the crane wife. She is a self-sacrificing figure. To stay with George and make their works of art, she tears the feathers from her own body. In her mythic self, though, she offers forgiveness at a terrible price, by ripping out a person’s heart and blinding him, then turning him to stone.

Is Ness saying that we’re only forgiven if we are blind, heartless, and turned to stone? Or are we only free of pain in that condition? Ness’ vision of love, that it is greedy, angry, or self-sacrificing, is a strange one. The goddess’s love is harrowing while Kumiko’s makes her give up everything. All of these ideas seem at once confused and simplistic. Literary Wives logo

I think Ness is saying more about love than about being a wife—that true love is more self-denying than greedy. George becomes obsessed with learning everything he can about Kumiko instead of accepting what she can give—and that leads to unhappiness.

But my question is, is either view of love a true one? Is it healthy or even right to be so self-denying that you literally mutilate yourself for love?

10 thoughts on “Day 530: Literary Wives! The Crane Wife

  1. Emily J. June 2, 2014 / 9:36 am

    I agree that his message was about love and how it isn’t greedy or possessive. I saw that play out specifically with Rachel. But you make a good point about these types of love in the book being polar opposites. Is one better than the other, or is there a spectrum or a middle area that is best?

    • whatmeread June 2, 2014 / 9:47 am

      That’s what I would hope, that we could have better ideas of love than having to tear your feathers out!

      • Carolyn O June 2, 2014 / 3:26 pm

        Kay, you crack me up.

        I like the way you’ve answered the LW questions — very elegant and spot-on.

  2. Cecilia June 2, 2014 / 5:04 pm

    Very thoughtful review! I didn’t end up finishing it…

    • whatmeread June 3, 2014 / 7:29 am

      Was that because you ran out of time or because you decided not to? I didn’t have trouble finishing it, but I wasn’t enchanted.

  3. Lynn June 2, 2014 / 9:08 pm

    Great review, Kay! Love your summaries of the two versions of love. I had caught most of that, but you certainly state it much better than I could have done. I truly disliked the mythical rantings and didn’t get much out of them, except such hopelessness, despair, and doom. Kinda like George was, come to think of it! 🙂 I believe neither version of love as you described them as depicted in this book to be “right.” As I have read everyone else’s reviews I think that perhaps one of the main disappointments with this book is that no one’s love seems to be “healthy” or returned in a healthy way. Thanks for delving into all that so eloquently!

    • whatmeread June 3, 2014 / 7:30 am

      Thanks so much! I think he could have written a better book by leaving out the myth part.

  4. whatmeread June 3, 2014 / 7:46 am

    Carolyn, I’m not even sure why I cracked you up this time. Serious!

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