Thursday, July 1, 2010

Book Review: Good Things I Wish You

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?


Kelly said...

Oh that sounds like a really interesting book- I'm even more interested to hear about Clara's and I didn't even read the book.

I've had this discussion about male/female friendships many times and I've changed my own opinion about it over the years.

I do think males and females can be friends- as in friends that go out for drinks together in groups, take classes together in college, etc. I do not think that males and females can be close, close friends without one of the people having feelings at least at some point during the friendship. I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule with someone, somewhere- but I have not seen it in my own life.

Charbelle said...

Regarding male female relationships I completely agree with Kelly. I think you can be casual aquaintances but beyond that no. My closest friends are all female. When I need a guys perspective I ask my brother.

The Many Thoughts of a Reader said...

I have mostly only male friends. It causes conflict with my husband, but I have always hung with the boys. It's hard for me to find friends with girls. I find the rare few and hold tight. I am not girly, have no fashion/hair/makeup sense and would rather drink beer and watch football. It sucks.

Becky said...

Wow, sounds like a really interesting read - thanks for sharing!

Abby said...

That book sounds very intersting. I aboslutely love learning about the lives of our composers. And you are right, many many many of them lived very scandolous lives! It's funny to realize that our "hollywood-like" entertainers have always historically found scandal!

I lean towards Billy Crystal of "When Harry Met Sally" - in that a man/woman friendship is very difficult. I think it's better if they are both single? However, then there's always somewhat of that attraction.

When married- I am not okay with having a friend of the opposite sex that you exclusively meet up with. I think it's disrespectful to the spouse. But I'm very "traditional", or "old school"

Mandy said...

Sounds like an interesting book and I will definitely check it out.

I do think that men and women can be friends. I have male friends now that I am close to just as I have female friends that I am close with. I don't ever enivision myself ceasing my relationships with my male friends just because I have a significant other.

Nora said...

My mind always goes back to the "When Harry Met Sally" discussion about men and women just being friends.

I'd like to think it's possible.
But I haven't ever really seen it yet.
The relationships are usually charged with some sort of chemistry or attraction (often one sided) that the other person doesn't feel. Find yourself in a relationship and suddenly those guys aren't around anymore, which leads me to believe that Men can't be friends with women (unless there is some bro code I don't know about that says you can't "be friends" with a girl once she's in a relationship?)

It's a tough thing, the friendship business. Even tougher when it involves the opposite sex

Amber said...

One of my best friends has a really good guy friend that she hangs out with all the time, talks on the phone with etc. But even she admits there is SOMETHING there. And I've seen girl and boy friendships fall apart because one person had feelings for the other.

It's definitely a fine line!

Megan said...

I've had a few books like this. Ones where you're reading and you feel like someone has secretly been invading your life. I'm always hesitant to tell people when I have that experience for fear of being judged!

Lisa-Marie said...

This is a beautifully written review, and I want to read the book now!

Stephany said...

I really haven't seen any close male/female friendships in my lifetime. I've seen close acquaintances and people who hang together, but never someone who considers the other sex to be their best friend. I completely agree with Abby in the sense that it's a little disrespectful if you're married. (I'm also very old-fashioned so my opinion may be in the minority.)

The book sounds amazing and I might have to check it out, even if I am a happy ending type of girl.

Anonymous said...

Learning about Clara's life would definitely be the draw for me in this book - she seems to be a fascinating woman. Thanks for being a part of the tour.

Emily Jane said...

That sounds like a really interesting book, and the theme is actually on something I've been thinking about recently. When I told a few of my coworkers I'd met some new friends, they automatically assumed they were girls, and expressed a little surprise and shock when I said they were both guys. I think girls and guys can definitely just be friends - my whole life I've felt more comfortable with guy friends and more uncomfortable with girls, and it's never led to anything "more" - although I say this as a girl who is very clearly engaged, and I talk about D, so the possibility of "more" is clearly defined as not possible from the get go, which I find helps. And if they're still willing to hang out and build friendships, that means they're ones to keep around, I think! :)