Literary Wives: The Crane Wife

The June pick for the Literary Wives series is The Crane Wife (2013) by Patrick Ness.  We are asking the following questions of all of the “wife” books we read.

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

The following bloggers are participating by posting their own reactions to this book.  Please visit their blogs and feel free to join the conversation.

Ariel of One Little Library

Carolyn O. of Rosemary and Reading Glasses

Cecilia of Only You

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

Kay of What Me Read

The Crane Wife is based on a Japanese folk tale, but Ness brings it into modern times by setting it in England with a guy named George, his grown daughter Amanda, and a mysterious girlfriend named Kumiko.  George awakens one night to find a crane shot by an arrow in his yard.  He goes out and helps it, and then it flies away.  Later, Kumiko appears in his shop, and they start dating.  She seems to be the perfect woman.  After some ups and downs, and a dramatic fire at the end in which Kumiko turns into a crane and saves both George and Amanda from the burning house, she disappears, and George realizes that she was the crane he had saved earlier.

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I’m not sure what this novel says about being a wife.  Kumiko tends to be perfect; she’s always calm, she understands George more than anybody else, and she’s able to save.  She has no flaws.  But she isn’t really a wife.  She’s a magical bird who dates George and leaves before they actually marry.  In my opinion, this book doesn’t say much about being a wife at all.

It does try to comment on love and betrayal.  When George cheats on Kumiko, his lover Rachel tells him, “And by being possessed, you possess, because that’s how love works. . . . I thought I possessed you like all those other idiots I slept with.  Possession while giving nothing in return” (p. 214).  She reveals her philosophy on love, that it is a way for her to posses men, but she tells George that he possessed her too. (I have no idea why, because George is boring.)  She is upset that he had power over her, but Kumiko has power over George.  The novel, with its strange love triangle, explores the power people can wield in romantic relationships and ignores the possibility of equanimity and goodwill flowing both ways. I was intrigued by this discussion of possession in relation to love because of A. S. Byatt’s novel Possession, which I recently reviewed here.  This possession that Rachel feels leads to jealousy over George’s relationship with Kumiko and she is responsibile for the fire at George’s house in the end.  Rachel is very obviously described as having “green eyes” before she lights the first match.

It is a strange book, and not just for the narrative, based on a Japanese folktale.  It is also strange because of the writing style. It is written in mostly dialogue, which I found annoying and unrealistic, and it is disjointed.  Ness often used ellipses as dialogue.  I didn’t care enough about the characters or the narrative to try to fill in those blanks myself.  I was not compelled by George at all, who seems to be an older autobiographical version of Ness.  George is a transplanted American in England; so is Ness.  Amanda’s character is equally unconvincing; she swears a lot and hangs out with stupid friends, although she has a young son that seems to connect her to her father.  Nevertheless, I disliked her.  And when George slept with her friend Rachel, after his engagement to Kumiko, I had no sympathy for him.  He came across as a stupid man with no morals, no loyalty, and no appeal.  I could not understand why either Kumiko or Rachel liked him.  I guess since he rescued Kumiko from the arrow when she was a bird is a reason, but we aren’t supposed to know that she’s the crane until the end of the novel.  It was pretty obvious throughout, however.

There were some good quotes, but they were often ruined by a cynical character claiming that the sentiment was just something people say to make themselves feel better.  The characters often made everything trite, even when the conversations were trying to be deep or thoughtful.  Here are a few of them.

“No one wanted to hear that people other than themselves might be complicated, that no one was ever just one thing, no history ever just one version” (p. 27).

“Smart people often feel left out, love” (p. 86).

“‘This I will never understand,’ Kumiko carried on over her. ‘The inability of people to see themselves clearly. To see what they are actually like, not what they fear they are like or what they wish to be like, but what they actually are.  Why is what you are never enough for you?’” (emphasis in original, p. 180).

Overall, I pretty much hated this novel, and I ended up skimming or reading disinterestedly for most of it. So if I missed something important or misrepresented part of the plot, that may be why.  I had a hard time getting into it with each reading, and I had to force myself to finish it for Literary Wives.  You might find more favorable reviews from the other bloggers.

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25 thoughts on “Literary Wives: The Crane Wife

Add yours

  1. Emily, this quote speaks volumes and shows why there can be no such thing as a perfect wife, husband, child or person.

    “No one wanted to hear that people other than themselves might be complicated, that no one was ever just one thing, no history ever just one version”

    We are all complicated beings and we have to learn how to yin and yang together. There has been only one perfect person that walked the earth and look what we did to him. Maybe that is the crane’s symbolism – a perfect person who we still cheat on.

    All the best, BTG (me and my many warts)

    1. Oooh, I love that idea of the crane’s symbolism. We are all cheating with our imperfections and inability to always treat others with kindness, love, and respect. I loved that quote too, because I’ve recently come to realize that I’m not “good” or “bad,” but that I’m a combination of both. I’m a spectrum, and sometimes I’m good at being on the nice end of the spectrum and other times I struggle and revert to a “darker” side of that same spectrum. I’m a human being and I’m complicated, as all of us are. Thanks for the comment!

      1. Well said for us all. I was thinking about your response. When they found Mother Teresa’s diaries, many were fascinated that she had self doubts and showed her imperfections. This is one of the finest people who ever walked the earth and even she had struggles with thoughts. My kids also seem to listen to us more when we talk about our failures and temptations. Take care, BTG

  2. I liked this a little better than you did, but not much. I don’t really agree with the comment above because these characters are too exaggerated to be complex.

    1. I think if we apply the idea to ourselves, it makes sense. But yes, the characters in the book were wooden and one-dimensional. It was hard to take them seriously.

  3. Though Amanda was my favorite character, I think the sequence I liked best in the novel was an early one — George’s story of being run over. I liked the way Ness framed it, as an example of how our own stories are other people’s stories, too. Anyway, I agree that the novel’s high point was its early section.

  4. It looks like we had the same feelings about this book. Your line about George being an older version of the author — I was thinking that the whole time! There were some things in the beginning that began to grate on my nerves and that prejudiced my attitude as I continued reading. I was up and down last month and I haven’t been patient with my reading, so I’m glad it wasn’t just me.

    1. I wanted to quit reading the whole time! I ended up just making myself finish by plowing through it at warp speed in one afternoon. I probably missed a lot of detail, but I didn’t feel bad. It was a horrible book. You are NOT (my version of italics in the comment 😉 ) alone!

      1. I actually didn’t finish it! I was on the fence about continuing and then I saw your 1 star rating on goodreads and decided, that’s it! I put it down at page 99.

  5. I felt that this was might have been a bit autobiographical in the characterizations. And I am so very glad not to have been alone in feeling the book was disjointed. I guess I didn’t dislike it as much as you and Cecilia, but I would never list it as a favorite or recommend it. I do remember thinking “Okay, I’m done with you now, too George, for cheating on this seemingly perfect woman.” I felt that way about Amanda’s little “cheat’ with her ex, too. Really? What if she was still married to him and his ex slept with him? These characters were definitely all very flawed, in my opinion. Sorry you had to just plow through it. I felt that way on occasion, too. Thanks for noting the cynicism. I remember realizing that off and on and just sighing…it didn’t work well for me either and was rather distracting.

    1. Yeah, it is nice to know that we weren’t alone in our difficulties with this book. I really think it could have bee a good one, and Ness could have done something really cool with the folk tale, but it just didn’t work out. Thanks for commiserating with me!

  6. I’ve never read this but from your review it reminds me of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He has to love and then lose the wife/crane(?) he shot, like the sailer had to wear the albatross around his neck. I don’t know, it might just be a stretch! I did like the quotes though!

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