While the first of this week’s non-Booker posts featured a man in a bygone era, today’s takes us in a very different direction. We’ll be examining what it means to be a woman in the modern world, and as you can imagine, that means there’s a lot to discuss. Luckily, then, we’re not constrained to one character – we’re off to Germany to catch up with five women looking for love, and a lot more besides 🙂
Daniela Krien’s Love in Five Acts (translated by Jamie Bulloch, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) is a set of five interconnected long stories set in the German city of Leipzig, part of the old East Germany before the wall fell. Each piece, running for forty to fifty pages, focuses on a woman in her forties, usually seeing them at a turning point in their life, and Krien builds the story through setting the woman’s current issues against scenes from her past.
With the five main characters searching for love and popping up in each other’s stories, it might all sound like a poor German spin-off of Sex and the City, but that’s definitely not the case. Instead, what we get is a careful, nuanced look at the issues and choices facing women in a modern, developed society. Krien explores the myth of women being able to have it all, showing what actually happens when they try to balance love, family and career.
Love in Five Acts was a bestseller in Germany, and that doesn’t surprise me as it’s a bit of a page-turner, as well as being absorbing and engaging. On finishing the first piece, ‘Paula’, about a woman finding happiness after a tough time, I wondered whether the format of five similar pieces might get a little stale; thankfully, that’s not the case. Krien cleverly expands the circle of acquaintances, and as the focus shifts in the second part to Paula’s best friend Judith, a doctor, this new character becomes a focal point for all the stories. Each of the remaining protagonists (Brida, the writer; Malika, the ex of Brida’s great love; and Jorinde, Malika’s actress sister) are foreshadowed in earlier stories, and the links between the parts allows Krien to circle back and look at her creations from another angle, showing at least two sides to certain stories.
One of the themes explored here is work, and the struggles the women face in balancing family life with their careers. While the ruthlessly efficient Judith prioritises her work effortlessly, Brida is a very different story. She’s a writer struggling to find time, and her work, which doesn’t bring in much money, always comes far behind family and her husband’s needs in terms of importance. She pushes ahead regardless, but it’s inevitable that a turning point will come:
Had she ever thought she was asking for too much, he asked, his voice quivering. Did she think it was possible to have everything, without any sacrifice, without any limits?
Did she seriously believe she could have children and art and culture and a husband and sex and time to read and time to do nothing and spontaneous getaways, without having to pay a price?
p.142 (MacLehose Press, 2021)
Brida’s experiences are similar to those of Jorinde, who makes a very different decision when forced to decide between a major film role and another pregnancy. She’s not helped in this by her frustrating deadbeat husband, one of several weak male antagonists featured.
In fact, the men are another major feature of Love in Five Acts, a complicating factor in the women’s lives. Judith chews them up and spits them out, but there’s a sense that this can only go on for so long, and that she may well regret this lifestyle one day:
It’s midnight when she gets to sleep, but just before half past three she is woken by her own crying. It’s already morning when she falls again into a deep sleep. (p.74)
The other women opt for more stable relationships, but these are no guarantee of happiness either. Whether you end up picking the wrong man, staying with someone who’s wrong for you just to spite your parents or losing the man you love because of an inability to compromise, there are at least five different issues on show here, and there aren’t many happy endings in sight.
One woman who seems happy enough now is Paula, but she certainly deserves it given her suffering. Another area Krien focuses on is children, and early on in Paula’s story we learn of her child’s death, with much of the piece examining the aftermath of the event:
One year ago the length of the day that lay ahead would have sent her into a panic. She would have started cleaning or doing the washing, gone for a jog or to see a film, or called Judith and gone with her to see the horse. What she did wasn’t important, all that mattered was that she did something. Otherwise the demons would have surfaced to haunt her. (p.7)
Brida, meanwhile, struggles to cope with the frustration of wanting to spend time with the characters in her head, only to get a call telling her to pick up her children from childcare. However, at least she has her kids. Malika, who’s always wanted children, never gets the opportunity, watching on as her sister mismanages her kids’ lives.
Love in Five Acts is cleverly structured, and the stories are carefully intermingled, with just the right amount of connection between the stories to link them without forcing them into a novel. This approach is at its best, perhaps, in Malika’s story where, having heard Brida’s side of the story, we get to see what was happening behind the scenes. Details in the earlier piece, such as the food Brida sends Götz (which Malika ends up handling) are repeated here, adding poignancy and depth to both parts. It’s in this second half of the story that the mystery of the bed in Götz’s shop is solved – now we see why it wasn’t for sale…
Krien’s stories do have their moments of humour, with Judith’s adventures in online dating a stand-out here (if a man seems perfect, there must be a catch, and the one here is expertly revealed), but a sense of pathos pervades the work as we sympathise with women struggling and realising that their life’s not what they thought it would be. For the most part, their men are a disappointment, with their betrayals and lack of understanding – the question is whether the women can make do with what they’ve got, and without the men.
Love in Five Acts is a book about a difficult period in the life of a woman, with five people coming to terms with shattered dreams, picking up the pieces and doing what they can with them. It is slightly open-ended, but while not all the stories have a happy ending, by the end of the book we feel that the five women are moving in the right direction. It may have been overlooked for the IBP longlist, but it’s the kind of book that might have made it in other, less non-fiction-heavy, years, and I’d certainly advise anyone interested in spending some time with Krien’s circle of friends to take a vicarious trip to Leipzig in her company 🙂