#WITMonth: Love in Five Acts by Daniela Krien

After Greenlandic youth culture and middle-school Japan, we move to a more mature milieu and slightly more touristy destination. This is also #20BooksofSummer no. 15.

Daniela Krien: Love in Five Acts (Die Liebe im Ernstfall), transl. Jamie Bulloch

Five women in their forties in post-reunification Leipzig muse about their lives and choices, and learn how to face their future in a series of linked stories.

Paula is friends with Judith, Brida is Judith’s patient, Malika is the ex-girlfriend of Brida’s ex-husband, and Jorinde is Malika’s sister. Their stories are full of the difficulties and sorrows that many women experience in their lives. They soldier on, because what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

Paula is mourning the death of one of her children, her marriage has broken down as a result, and she hardly dares to allow herself to be happy again. Judith distrusts men and makes fun of those she meets via online dating. She pities her friends who have to put up with disobliging husbands:

Unhappiness makes you ill, it’s as simple as that. Sometimes she’s flabbergasted by the generosity of other women. How mild they are in their judgements, how gently they devote themselves to their husbands, how magnanimously they accept and overlook their weaknesses.

And yet she has moments when she realises it is difficult to be alone and regrets her decision not to have any children.

Meanwhile, Brida rather regrets her decision to have children, because she is a writer and struggles to combine motherhood with her art. She has left her husband, but still is sexually attracted to him and suffers pangs of jealousy seeing him with his new partner. She also discovers that it’s not just the children who are affecting her creativity and this passage in particular resonated with me:

Write in peace. For years that was all she wanted. Now that she has the children only half the time, only gets half of the children’s lives, half of their joys, half of their worries, the words won’t flow. Now that joint custody… has given her the freedom to work undisturbed, the source has dried up.

Malika still mourns the end of her relationship, and feels she would have been a much more suitable wife to Brida’s ex – and a better mother. She cannot help feeling second-best in everyone’s affections, and that includes her parents, who always seem to prefer her sister Jorinde to herself. However, Jorinde, who had moved to Berlin to pursue an acting career, is far from being as successful or happy as she seems.

In the hands of a less skilled writer, this could quite easily have descended into a bit of a soap opera – and in fact, I have read novels where this is precisely what happened (e.g., Katherine Pancol may be a huge bestseller in France but I just could not get on with her work at all). However, Daniela Krien has a sober, restrained way with words and, although these are all women of similar age and background, they were very different in character and voice. You may be incensed at the ‘drippiness’ or ‘stroppiness’ of some of the women or roll your eyes at their bad choices, but this is not high melodrama or cloying sentimentality.

What this book: one that a whole swathe of readers will dismiss as ‘not interesting or relatable’, because it is about middle-aged women and mostly mothers (or those who wish to become mothers). However, we’ve been led to believe that men’s middle-aged crises are riveting to read about or watch on film. I am sure we can endure a little bit of a female perspective on that. I think it presents quite a kaleidoscope of female experience, and demonstrates that even in recent years and in developed countries, women’s choices are still not as easy or as wide-ranging as one might believe, even when they think they’ve made them of their own free will.

Her freedom had only ever been imaginary, time-restricted. Lke a sweet she was permitted to taste before it was taken away from her for good. For generations of women before her, life paths had been narrower, more fixed. Suddenly Brida imagined these women must have been happier, as they would never have lived under the illusion that they could shape their own lives, never felt the disappointment when all the open doors slammed shut at once. None of the constraints on their lives were their own responsibility. The circumstances hadn’t allowed for anything different. Brida, however, had made the choices herself.

The book not only looks at the gap between expectation and reality in the case of women’s lives, but there is also an undercurrent of the gap between hopes/promises and reality regarding the reunification of Germany. Did all the possibilities open up for those women in the new Germany? Not sure. This disenchantment is sometimes expressed in the conflict between the older and younger generation (for instance, between Malika and Jorinde and their parents) or between spouses, with Wessi husbands expecting housewives and stay-at-home-mothers far more than their Ossi wives.

A solid, interesting read. It didn’t quite wow the socks off me, like Julia Franck or Jenny Erpenback (or even Judith Schalansky), but it had depth beneath its easy reading surface.

P.S. The translation of the title is a bit unimaginative but does the job. The literal translation would be something like: ‘Love, Seriously’ or ‘Love in Case of Emergency’ – and ‘fall’ of course, although it means ‘case’, can also mean ‘fall’ (which explains the diver on the cover far better, since swimming features far less in the book than horseriding).