Ansay uses Jeanette’s quest for the truth as suspenseful movement within the narrative. Jeanette, teacher and writer of fiction, makes it her mission to discover the truth about, essentially, everything: The nature of the forty-year relationship of piano prodigy Clara Schumann and her husband’s young protégé, Johannes Brahms, during the nineteenth century (the subject of the book she is writing); the reason her marriage to her ex-husband Cal failed; and, most immediately, the truth about her mysterious date, Hart:
“He is an entrepreneur,” America, the dating agency, had told her over the phone.
“That can mean anything,” Jeanette answered.
Ansay gives Jeanette very dark and comic capabilities, an honest blend of a sharp intellect and deep emotion. She is a lovable narrator, both creating and sustaining the passion in the novel with her biting wit and attention to detail. We trust her to always “smell the antiseptic in the air,” to see “the blue chintz curtains.” She intuitively understands crucial things about the people around her, like her daughter Heidi who she describes as passionate about everything, “from the fit of her socks to the stroke of a pen.” Jeanette’s intuitive understanding lends credence to why first person narrators even exist. We read this book primarily because we want to see the world the way Jeanette sees the world. We want to be present with Jeanette, once a child prodigy herself at the piano, when she describes walking into her piano teacher’s house as a young child, feeling something like de ja vu, something she understands as, “the inevitability of a steep, accidental fall.” Which is at times what Good Things I Wish You feels like, in the best way possible, the way that “it’s like becoming aware of gravity, just for a moment.”
What makes this novel succeed are the characters themselves. Jeanette and Hart are so familiar as people and yet so unique, self-contained and yet desperate for connection that it becomes an impossible but exciting challenge to know whether what is going on between Jeanette and Hart is a good or a bad thing. Hart is a self-described dead stone, and Jeanette is “incapable of passion,” as told to her by her piano teacher when she was younger, in one of the sexiest, most intimate scenes in the book. Yet, they are full of passion. Jeanette and Hart disagree on most things, but in this way, they understand each other. They make each other laugh. They challenge each other. And yet, on certain days, they aren’t right for each other, for reasons nobody can understand. The contradiction of their compatibility becomes one of the most successful tensions in the novel, and it seems with every page we are forced to keep asking the central question: Can men and women be just friends? And with every other page, there is a different answer.
The honest passion to Ansay’s writing is one that I haven’t encountered in a while, one that pleasantly reminds the reader that it’s okay, at times, to be a little earnest. It is Ansay’s dedication to truth, both emotional and historical, that keeps the novel from reading like a stale formula of past and present, but rather a story that is very much alive, rich with imagery and text, transcending boundaries of time and narrative.