Earlier this month, I read Good Things I Wish You by A. Manette Ansay. I had previously read and really enjoyed Blue Water, another book by Ansay, so was really looking forward to reading this book. Good Things I Wish You (which I will refer to as Good Things in this review) could fall under the classification of historical fiction. In Good Things, we meet Jeanette Hochmann, a newly divorced woman who is writing a book about the relationship between Clara Schumann, wife of the famous composer Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms, the protege of Clara's husband. My oh my, the lives of the composers were certainly more scandalous than I ever would have imagined when I learned about them as a young child!
Ansay skillfully weaves together Jeanette and Clara's stories. Through her research, Jeanette is trying to determine the nature of the relationship between Clara and Johannes. Was it a romantic relationship? Were they strictly friends and colleagues? Ansay includes excerpts of letters from Johannes, either to Clara or about Clara, that clearly show that Johannes was in love with Clara, such as the following:
"I often have to restrain myself forcibly from just quietly putting my arm around her and even - I don't know, it seems so natural that she could not misunderstand. I think I can no longer love an unmarried girl - at least, I have quite forgotten about them. They but promise heaven while Clara shows it revealed to us." (p. 57)
From this excerpt it sounds like it was unrequited love, but it's difficult to confirm this as the letters from Clara to Johannes have all been destroyed... It does appear that Clara had the upper hand in the relationship and seemed to keep Brahms wanting more. We do know that Clara lived a very lonely life. Her husband dies in a mental institution in 1856, after an attempted suicide. Clara then goes on to live for 40 more years and never re-marries and Brahms does not marry either. On her death bed, Clara continues to proclaim that they were best friends.
While Jeanette is doing research for a book about this pair, she is re-entering the dating world. She begins a relationship with a man named Hart, but finds parallels between Clara and Johannes's relationship and her relationship with Hart. At times, she will use direct quotes from letters from Johannes when describing her relationship, such as the phrase, "She wants to be close. She can't bear to be close."
"I was tired of this. Tired of him. He could touch me, yes, but on his own terms. He could say anything he wanted. He wants to be close. He can't bear to be close. This was going nowhere." (p. 173)
This book strikes me as a study in dysfunctional, unbalanced relationship. I think every person finds themselves in that sort of relationship at some point in their life, so for me it was a book I could relate to. There were times when I read passages and thought - yes! That is exactly how I felt.
After I finished the book, I turned off my light, and tossed and turned. I kept thinking about passages that so aptly described how I feel at times. Passages such as this last one that I will leave you with:
"All that I'd lost truly hit me then. I was alone in the world, I was truly alone. And yet.. I must go to work and come home. I must shop and cook and clean the house, balance the checkbook, take the car in for oil changes, repair the gutters, pay taxes. A privileged life, a blessed life, in a world filled with hunger and terror and want. It was shameful to admit, even to myself, that it all seemed impossible somehow." (p. 246)
Good Things is a short, quick read. It's not a cheerful, pick-me-up sort of book, but if you are anything like me, it will leave you thinking. It has also sparked my curiosity about the life of Clara Schumann; I plan on checking out one of the books that she cited throughout the book (Clara Schumann: Piano Virtuoso by Susanna Reich).
In Ansay's book, Jeanette tries to answer the age old question: can men and women be friends? I do have male friends, but do not have a close, personal relationship with any that would mirror Clara and Johannes relationship. What do you think? Is it possible for men and women to just be friends?