The tragic figures of the Romantic Age tempt us to make them our own. Clara Schumann (1819-1896), wife of Robert Schumann, friend of Johannes Brahms and an idolized pianist in her own right, fits the bill. • In her new novel Good Things I Wish for You, A. Manette Ansay merges Clara's relationships with the two great composers into the narrative of her protagonist, 42-year-old divorced Miami writer Jeanette Hochmann, who is writing a book about Clara. (Ansay, who earned degrees in creative writing at the University of South Florida and Cornell, teaches at the University of Miami.)
Through a dating service, Jeanette meets a divorced German entrepreneur named Hart, whose teenage daughter, Friederike, is an accomplished violinist. Jeanette's young daughter, Heidi, is also musically inclined, following in the wake of her mother, who once had a strong attachment to a piano teacher 30 years her senior.
Jeanette's friend Ellen represents the ultracautious woman in the age of anxiety, Googling Hart because she doesn't trust him. Hart happens to be from Leipzig — Clara's hometown — where he will attend a concert by his daughter at the same time Jeanette will be in Leipzig to research her book.
Ansay implies that Clara, because of the social obstacles she encountered, experienced a satisfaction eluding the ambitious 21st century woman. Jeanette's story, in more wrought prose, would be the sum of most contemporary novels. In an empathetic leap, Ansay subjects her modern characters to invidious comparison. She questions average novelistic aims, with characters unable to see beyond their own minor pathologies.
Clara's father, Friedrich Wieck, relentlessly trained her, wanting her to become not only a great pianist but the first important female composer. Wieck wrote a diary for Clara from an early age, in her voice.
Robert Schumann entered their lives as a pupil of Wieck's, when Clara was already adored by audiences. When Robert wanted to marry Clara, Wieck resorted to drastic measures to stop them, afraid that Clara, "reduced to a common hausfrau," would drop her musical ambitions.
Clara had eight children with Robert, and though she kept performing, her composing did end. Robert and Clara at first kept a "joint marriage diary," with alternating entries. Thirteen years into the marriage, Robert attempted suicide and was committed to an asylum. He spent his last two years there, visited by Clara only once.
Robert and Clara had welcomed young Johannes Brahms into their home. Johannes fell in love with plain-faced, managerially superb Clara, who understood the music business like no other woman.
Shortly after Robert's death, Clara and Johannes vacationed in Gersau, after which they abruptly parted. Any romantic plans were shelved, though the two remained close friends until Clara's death 40 years later. Clara dispersed her children in boarding schools or with relatives, returning to performing with a vengeance. Several of her children died early, of illness and madness.
What happened between Clara and Johannes at the critical moment is unknown. Ansay's Jeanette believes they were never more than friends. Hart believes Johannes was disillusioned when at last he made love to Clara; he is convinced that "men and women can never be friends."
Jeanette understands that Clara cannot be reduced to today's scale, although Clara was modern enough to provoke discomfort even now. Why did she not visit Robert in the insane asylum? Why did she have so little to do with her surviving children? Did she recognize her own compositional limits when she married Robert? Three adoring men of talent and ego — Wieck, Schumann, Brahms — each took so much from Clara, without diminishing her.
Ansay intersperses the novel with documentary pictures and quotations from the Schumann diaries and letters to highlight the emotional disparity between Jeanette and Clara. The novel's climax, when Jeanette and Hart vacation in Gersau, articulates the similarity defining relationships between men and women across time. Johannes probably spurned Clara. Jeanette has more choice with Hart. Yet why does Jeanette's freedom feel so limiting?
If Ansay wanted readers to be disquieted by her importation of Clara's fortitude, she has succeeded. The superimposition of the documentary biography makes the emotional walls between the reader and Ansay's characters both fragile and impenetrable — an effect that only emphasizes the dilemma of nonchoice masquerading as choice.
Anis Shivani's collection "Anatolia and Other Stories" will be published by Black Lawrence Press in October.