Literary Wives: The Crane Wife, by Patrick Ness

literarywives2If you’re new to Literary Wives, here’s the summary: we’re an online bookclub of five to six book bloggers, and we post every other month about a different book with the word “wife” in the title. When we read these books, we have two questions in mind:

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

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

This month, we’re talking about Patrick Ness’s latest novel, The Crane Wife*.  We invite you to join the discussion by commenting on our blogs (links below) or posting your own review on our shiny new Facebook page.

We also hope you’ll join us next time, on Monday, August 4, when we’ll be discussing Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife (poetry! hooray!).


photo (83)I’ve had my eye on The Crane Wife for a few months. I like novels that bend myths and folklore in new ways, and Patrick Ness has been the recipient of all kinds of praise. And isn’t the cover just gorgeous?

Here’s the summary from the publisher:

George Duncan is an American living and working in London. At forty-eight, he owns a small print shop, is divorced, and is lonelier than he realizes. All of the women with whom he has relationships eventually leave him for being too nice. But one night he is waked by an astonishing sound—a terrific keening, which is coming from somewhere in his garden. When he investigates he finds a great white crane, a bird taller than himself. It has been shot through the wing with an arrow. Moved more than he can say, George struggles to take out the arrow from the bird’s wing, saving its life before it flies away into the night sky.

The next morning, a shaken George tries to go about his daily life, retreating to the back of his store and making cuttings from discarded books—a harmless personal hobby—when a woman walks through the front door of the shop. Her name is Kumiko, and she asks George to help her with her own artwork. George is dumbstruck by her beauty and her enigmatic nature and begins to fall desperately in love with her. She seems to hold the potential to change his entire life, if he could only get her to reveal the secret of who she is and why she has brought her artwork to him.

You see where that’s going, right? I think we’re meant to; as we (the readers) read to understand how and why Kumiko and the crane are connected, George busies himself just trying to learn who Kumiko is — she’s evasive, to say the least; the most personal information she’ll share is a mythic story about a crane and a volcano that she’s depicting in a private series of works.

The novel is at its best when it focuses on the everyday lives of its characters. George is a thoughtful, kind man (a real treat to read about, in this day and age), and his daughter, Amanda, was my favorite character. Angry and overworked on both the professional and the domestic fronts, Amanda has trouble fitting in with other women at work, who discount her passionate opinions and remain oblivious to her particular brand of humor. She’s still in love with her ex-husband and delights in their rambunctious son. Like George, like everyone, she’s entranced by Kumiko. I was entranced by Amanda, by her intensity and her awareness and by how much she cares for her family. Throughout the novel, I preferred realism to the hazy sort of philosophy that Kumiko seems to represent.

I have three quibbles with the novel’s style. First, Mr. Ness italicizes words for emphasis, which drove me crazy. (See?) Once I could overlook, but it happens repeatedly. Second, the tone occasionally veers into the maudlin and sentimental, which was distracting. Third, several long sections consist entirely of dialogue (which is fine), with pauses indicated by ellipses in quotation marks. Would it have been so difficult to write, “He paused.”? And how is an ellipsis spoken?

The Crane Wife is a gentle, sometimes sentimental novel with memorable characters. If that’s your kind of book, I think you’ll like it.


And now, on to the Literary Wives questions:

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

Despite the title, neither of the main female characters — Kumiko and Amanda — are properly wives. George’s ex-wife is refreshingly non-harpy-like, and happily remarried. Amanda’s experience of marriage — what little we see of it — was difficult because of the two personalities involved. There’s no cohesive picture of what it means to be a wife, and that’s just fine.

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

Again, a difficult question to answer, since, properly, the Crane Wife is a folktale/mythological/fairytale figure, and in this instance she seems to be the crane in Kumiko’s story, who must see the world for what it is, be willing to suffer for love, and ultimately forgive those who hurt her (this is all a bit fuzzy, to tell the truth). I don’t think I like this vision of what it means to be a wife — see feminist credentials, mine — but this is all wrapped up in the “hazy philosophy” I mentioned above, so I will forgo the rant for now.

*I, along with the other Literary Wives bloggers, received a review copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Please visit the other Literary Wives bloggers to get their takes on the book! 

Emily at The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Ariel at One Little Library

Cecilia at Only You

Kay at WhatMeRead

Lynn at Smoke and Mirrors

(Audra at Unabridged Chick is on hiatus)

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12 thoughts on “Literary Wives: The Crane Wife, by Patrick Ness

  1. As an old American (with an interest in printing) living in London, I applaud Mr. Ness.
    Not since the 20s have we had such a feel-good story for lonely old American ex-pats.

  2. You were kinder on the characters than I was. I’m glad to hear you were able to connect with them. I am also glad to hear that you had problems with the writing style as well. It drove me nuts!

  3. Given that cranes mate for life (usually), I wonder what that means in this story where none of these characters has apparently mated for life. I haven’t read the book, but I wonder if it’s a comment on the unrealistic nature of The Crane Wife myth and folklore.

    Additionally, the fantastic band The Decemberists have a wonderful series of songs about The Crane Wife, completely unrelated to this book but definitely a spin on the mythical Crane Wife folklore.

  4. Glad to know I was not alone in the writing style being “a bit of a rough go”! Although the italicization nor ellipses really bothered me, the structure left me cold, as well as passages involving the crane and volcano. However, your review has made me smile and laugh! Thank you for that. I needed both tonight!! And I now remember I neglected to list next month’s book in my review. I need to add that! (You may have to help me through it, since it is poetry, after all!) I really liked your description as “gentle” and “sometimes sentimental.”

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