Love in Five Acts tells the stories of five very different women whose paths all intersect. Punch and contemporary, Daniela Krien’s captivating novel is perfect for readers of An American Marriage and Conversations with Friends. Read an extract from the book here.
The day Paula realises she’s happy is a Sunday in March.
It’s raining. It started during the night and hasn’t stopped since. When Paula wakes around half past eight the rain is pounding against her sloping bedroom window. She turns onto her side and pulls the duvet up to her chin. She didn’t wake up once last night and can’t remember having dreamed either.
Her mouth is dry and a slight pressure inside her skull reminds Paula of yesterday evening. Wenzel cooked dinner and opened a bottle of French red to go with it. Afterwards they sat on the sofa and listened to music – Mahler’s “Song of the Earth”, Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Schubert Lieder, Brahms and Mendelssohn. They searched YouTube for different artists, compared their performances and squealed in childish delight whenever their opinions concurred.
Paula could have stayed at his place, spent the night with him, but she claimed to have left her medicine at home. The hydrocortisone was in her handbag. In fact what she didn’t have were her toothbrush and facial cleanser. Wenzel would have said these weren’t important and would have persuaded her to stay.
She got into a taxi at around two in the morning. Wenzel stood outside until the car turned the corner.
She reaches for the bottle of water beside her bed, takes a glug, then switches on her phone and reads his message: Morning, darling. Thinking of you, as always. A text every morning and evening. For the past ten months, without exception.
Leni likes Wenzel too, and Wenzel likes Leni.
When they first met he impressed her with a very rapid sketch of her face. The resemblance was striking, and Leni wanted him to do more so she could show off at school.
Paula checks the time. Nine hours until Leni comes back. Either she’ll chuck her things on the floor, mumble a hello and withdraw to her room or, without pausing for breath, give a detailed report of the weekend, including photographs of her half-sister and a rhapsody about Filippa’s cooking.
As Paula replies to Wenzel’s morning greeting, she wishes she were with him.
Her desire for him is always at its greatest in the morning. When she goes to the kitchen to put on the coffee she writes him an unambiguous text.
Since Paula has had Wenzel in her life she hasn’t missed Leni so much at weekends. And what could she do, anyway? Leni isn’t a child anymore. In the mornings she practises a variety of smiles in front of the mirror, she makes rips in her trousers, wears shirts that appear to slide casually off the shoulder, uses lip gloss and sends cryptic messages to the 7b class chat, consisting chiefly of emojis and abbreviations. Sometimes she’ll talk non-stop, only to lapse into an aggressive silence shortly afterwards. She copes with her nightmares on her own and Paula hasn’t seen her daughter naked for a while now. Not even that morning when Leni asked if it’s possible to have saggy breasts when you’re thirteen. She said she’d looked at hers and decided that they were that shape. With her right hand she drew a ridiculously exaggerated outline in the air, keeping her left hand pressed to her chest. Before Paula could reply, Leni was berating her mother for having passed on only her worst features: freckles, pale skin, red hair, knobbly knees and a total ineptitude in physics and chemistry.
Pointing out that genetic inheritance was pure chance, not a conscious decision, Paula was about to stroke her daughter’s hair, but Leni pulled away and dashed out, slamming the door behind her. She came back soon after and threw herself into Paula’s arms, as if stocking up for the next stage of detachment.
It’s still raining. Paula squeezes some oranges and froths milk for her coffee. A vase of tulips is on the table.
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.
* * *
After she separated from Ludger she often wondered what had marked the beginning of the end. When had things got out of control?
Johanna’s death had been a watershed. But as time passed she began to attribute the failure of their relationship to other, earlier events, going further and further back until there was no more back.
It all began with a party.
When the organic shop in Südvorstadt celebrated its opening, Paula and Judith were passing by chance. They’d been at the lake, sunbathing in the nude, rubbing sun lotion into each other, eating ice cream and attracting plenty of looks. Satisfied with themselves and the impression they’d made, they cycled past the wildlife park, through the floodplain forest, and back into town where it was still hot and sticky.
From a distance they noticed the balloons, the planters full of flowers and the crowd of people outside the shop. Eager for a cold drink, they stopped.
Ludger was standing near the door when they entered. Paula noticed him right away. Later he said that he’d caught sight of her out of the corner of his eye too, and his gaze had followed her. Paula was wearing a moss-coloured strapless dress and a sunhat, from beneath which her red locks flowed.
Outside the sun was scorching, the odour of exhaust fumes and lime blossom hung in the streets and every breath of wind blew the sticky-sweet concoction into the shop. Ludger was wearing a linen shirt. His hair was blond, his eyes blue. He wasn’t the conqueror type.
The two of them left the party shortly afterwards, chatting as they wheeled their bikes along the street.
Ludger kept looking at her, but he did not hold her gaze. When he spoke at any length he stopped.
Like Paula, he tried to stay in the shade.
By the riverbank he casually stroked her arm.
On a park bench in the evening light she kissed him.
"Highly recommended" Sunday Times
"Utterly captivating" Woman and Home
"Sympathetic and clear-eyed" Financial Times Summer Reads of 2021
"Unfailingly impressive" Irish Times
"Sparse and precise" Telegraph
"Beautifully direct and lucid prose . . . fierce intelligence" Melbourne Age & Sydney Morning Herald
"A beautiful novel of what it is to be a women in modern Europe" New European
"An intelligent study of female desire, ambition and frailty" Observer
Bookseller Paula has lost a child, and a husband. Where will she find her happiness? Fiercely independent Judith thinks more of horses than men, but that doesn't stop her looking for love online. Brida is a writer with no time to write, until she faces a choice between her work and her family. Abandoned by the "perfect" man, Malika struggles for recognition from her parents. Her sister Jorinde, an actor, is pregnant for a third time, but how can she provide for her family alone?
Love in Five Acts explores what is left to five women when they have fulfilled their roles as wives, mothers, friends, lovers, sisters and daughters. As teenagers they experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall, but freedom brings with it another form of pressure: the pressure of choice.
Punchy and entirely of the moment, Love in Five Acts engages head-on with what it is to be a woman in the twenty-first century.
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch