Emerging from a time of great turmoil . . . all depending on your experiences over the past two years . . . Love in Five Acts could either strike a strong chord of recognition, inspire relief at being in a secure relationship, or prompt joy at being single and happy.
The lives of five very different middle-aged women – Paula, Judith, Brida, Malika and Jorinde – loosely criss-cross over each other in a cat’s cradle of love and loss, desire, infidelity and torment. Luck and happenstance play a central role.
In their teens, they had witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, and subsequently discovered new freedoms. But making choices is not so easy . . . each woman fails in her love life and has to face her fear of not being loved, of being alone, and find a way to move forwards (or not).
The way in which the stories and the women are connected in different ways reminded me of Robert Altman’s 1993 film, Short Cuts, which is inspired by a collection of short stories and a poem by Raymond Carver. Arguably, Love in Five Acts raises the roof on Germany as Short Cuts “raises the roof on America”.
Bookseller Paula separates from her husband when their second daughter dies three days after being given a vaccine. The infant is only eight months old. Paula falls into an emotional black hole, prostitutes herself and finally meets Wenzel who helps keep her demons at bay.
Her friend Judith is still a beauty. A great horsewoman she is also a very good doctor. Proficient at using the internet to meet men, she shags them but there is no real intimacy: “Judith tended to prefer the company of the horse to that of other people.”
Brida, a writer, is particularly productive during her time with Götz before they have children. She loses her husband to Svenja, a slender, firm-bodied younger woman. “Until then they had conducted their affairs openly, even telling each other about them and making comparisons [. . .] This time, however, Brida had been totally unaware.”
Malika is a gifted violinist-turned-teacher. Her once dazzling parents whose home before reunification was a cultural hub welcoming a constant flow of artists, writers and musicians, are not the loving united partners which they appear to be, quite the contrary. When Malika meets Götz, obsession takes hold.
Her actress sister, Jorinde, is married to a man who is not the father of her children. She looks to her sister for support when they divorce as she gets none from their “batty mother and Nazi father.” But a distance grows and grows between her and her children and her ex makes legal threats.
Schadenfreude, or the joy of another’s misfortune
As the women fret and feel responsible, the men fail to show up emotionally, and seem to be far less concerned. Although like anyone else, men are not mind-readers. It helps to tell them directly what you want, otherwise how can you expect them to know?
At the end of Love in Five Acts the connections between the women crystallize. What happens to them dramatically shows how our intimate relationships, dating and sex lives are inextricably bound to our emotional needs in a way that is almost unbelievable yet painfully true and profound.
The theory goes that when we meet someone who matches the pattern of parental love and behaviour we experienced as children and young adults, and matches our emotional map for intimacy, then romantic love kicks in. The familial relationships of the five women when growing up are reflected in the way they fail to get their needs fulfilled as mature adults; and their baggage and ability to endure varies considerably. Perceptive and tender yet tough, this novel is the ultimate recourse for those who have suffered or are suffering the torments of love. At times it is almost too painful to read – Paula’s story especially. The writing is fluid and versatile and beautifully translated by award-winning translator Jamie Bulloch.
Love in Five Acts beautifully exemplifies the way in which translated fiction not only offers illuminating glimpses into other cultures and experiences, but also emphasizes our universal human commonalities.
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Love in Five Acts by Danieal Krien Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch | MacLehose Press, Quercus Publishing | April 2021 | £14.99 HB ISBN 9781529406382
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