Manette Ansay, a Midwesterner by birth, dedicated herself to writing at the age of 23, after a crippling illness ended her dreams of being a concert pianist. From 1993 to 1997, she was an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, and in 1998 she served as a visiting writer at the University of the South in Sewanee. Ansay hit the literary big time in 1999, when her first novel, Vinegar Hill, became an Oprah’s Book Club selection five years after its publication. Good Things I Wish You is her eighth book and arguably her most ambitious. Ansay originally conceived it as a historical novel, but it evolved into a story that, as she writes on her website, “leans backwards out of the present world and into the 1860s.”
Good Things I Wish You opens with the recently divorced narrator, Jeanette, fuming and devouring bread as she waits impatiently at a restaurant for her first date in nineteen years. The online singles service has promised her a “handsome, honest, and caring” 47-year-old, improbably named Hart. When he finally arrives, Hart turns out to be a wealthy German ex-pat who’s handsome enough, but grumpy and inscrutable. They snipe at each other, complaining about traffic and the dangers of Internet dating.
Jeanette, a writer, lets her mind wander to her current project, a novel about the mysterious real-life relationship between nineteenth century composer Robert Schumann, his wife Clara—a brilliant pianist—and Johannes Brahms (of “Lullaby” fame).
After Hart tells Jeanette he’s from Clara Schumann’s birth city, Leipzig, the narrative abruptly shifts from the sour, thoroughly modern encounter between Hart and Jeanette to an account of the troubled marriage of the Schumanns. Then Ansay returns to the twenty-first-century couple as they debate the real nature of Brahms’s and Clara’s friendship, with Jeanette arguing for platonic romance, and Hart dismissing the idea: “There is always hanky-panky,” he says.
The plot of Good Things I Wish You moves between Jeanette’s growing, if cautious, feelings for Hart and the passions of the Schumann-Brahms cohort. The question of whether men and women can ever truly be friends, whether they can respect and care for each other without imposing destructive needs, haunts the twin narratives. Jeanette is uncomfortably aware of the parallels between her life and Clara’s. Like Clara, she is an artist who finds herself torn between her domestic role and her creative vocation. Her description of her relationship with ex-husband Cal, an eccentric depressive she still both loves and hates, mirrors Clara’s difficult marriage to Schumann: “His depression had always been part of our lives. First there were good years, with bad stretches. Then there were bad years, with good stretches. And then there were the years when it settled in for good, never talked of but always present, a phantom presiding over our table, slipping a cold hand into our bed.”
Hart, as assured and rational as Cal was inept and confused, inspires desire in Jeanette, but the distance that remains between them baffles her: “I felt as if I were being embraced by—not a stranger, exactly—but someone I knew very slightly: a bank teller, a crossing guard, a checkout clerk at the grocery store.” As the two travel together on her writer’s pilgrimage to the Swiss resort where Clara and Brahms became mysteriously estranged, Jeanette discovers the disturbing truth about Hart, and about the nature of her own feelings. Love, she realizes, is often an illusion, and at best a consolation prize. Art comes first. As Clara explains in a letter written after Schumann is institutionalized, “I always believed I knew what a splendid thing it is to be an artist, but only now, for the first time, do I really understand how all my pain…can be relieved only by divine music so that I often feel quite well again.”
Ansay expertly stitches together Jeanette’s own narrative and passages from her novel-in-progress with the historical letters of Brahms and the Schumanns. Although Good Things I Wish You hops between its various elements, the parallel stories are easy to follow and don’t require the industrial-strength concentration sometimes demanded by this breed of metafiction. Somber, sexless photographs of Clara and Brahms are scattered throughout the text, deepening the aura of tragedy around their relationship. The unsmiling faces seem to declare that these were not shallow people, and their love could not have been a trivial infatuation.
Unfortunately, the affair between Jeanette and Hart does seem rather trivial by comparison. It’s a glancing, short-lived hook-up, while the bond between Clara and Brahms, however damaged, lasted their whole lives. Ansay has Brahms crying out in despair as Clara is dying, “Apart from Frau Schumann, I am not attached to anyone with my whole soul!” It’s hard to imagine the cold-blooded Hart mourning Jeanette in quite that way.
Good Things I Wish You is beautifully written, with a deft style that rarely calls attention to itself. Ansay did considerable research on Clara Schumann, and though the inclusion of footnotes and a bibliography may seem a bit much for a page-turner, her homework clearly enriches the novel. For all its complex texture, however, the narrative seems a little hollow, perhaps because the husbands who sent Jeanette and Clara to their respective lovers have mere cameos. Cal and Robert Schumann are the 800-pound gorillas in the story. Jeanette suggests that such difficult partners thwart the creative process even as they fuel it, but Ansay leaves this intriguing idea unexplored. A more probing look at how Ansay’s two female protagonists came to love and lose their weak spouses might have tarnished them as heroines but could have told an even deeper truth about the nature of the artist.