I found Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau* to be well-written, intriguingly structured, and deeply frustrating.
This last characteristic is a measure of the skill Ms. Essbaum, who is a very well-regarded poet, brings to her characterization of Anna, the eponymous hausfrau.
Anna is an American who’s lived in Switzerland for many years, but who’s never felt at home in her adopted country. Outwardly, her life seems orderly and comfortable. She is married to a handsome and successful banker, has three beautiful children, and lives in a charming suburb of one of the world’s best cities.
Inwardly, Anna is a mess. She has trouble making friends, her husband is emotionally distant, and she doesn’t speak the Swiss variant of German, so she feels constantly isolated, even from herself. It’s difficult for her to understand her own feelings and impulses. To combat her isolation, Anna starts Jungian analysis (one of the best parts of the book, I thought), German classes, and ill-fated affairs.
As I said, Hausfrau is very well written—calibrated to elicit the reader’s undivided attention and inability to look away from Anna’s increasingly disastrous life. The narrative arc covers only a few months in time, but each chapter reaches back to past events and is molded by Anna’s conversations with her analyst, an interesting strategy that I came to admire as I adjusted to it.
Anna is very much alive, but reading about her was exhausting; I often felt overwhelmed by the details of her thoughts and experiences. And this is why I think this book screams for a book club: some readers are going to hate her, others are going to be entranced by the full psychological portrait, and some are going to feel both ways at once (yes, that’s me).
If I were part of a real-life book club, here are some things I’d want to talk about.
1. The heroine’s name is Anna, she’s adulterous, and the first chapter involves trains. Anna Karenina much? We all knew what was coming, right?
2. If Anna is so unhappy because Bruno is so emotionally distant (and prone to violence, though it’s not clear how far that goes before the last episode), why doesn’t Anna get a divorce? Why not even talk about it or think about it? I thought this was unrealistic. Marriage certainly didn’t define Anna to such an extent that she’d be adrift without it. She’d be adrift no matter what.
3. Anna’s failure to recognize her privilege annoyed the hell out of me. She does not need to worry about money at all (this is a complaint I have about a great many novels, as I discuss in this review), but doesn’t seem to appreciate this gift.
And while being the at-home parent is challenging (believe me, I know), she is not juggling working from home at the same time, her children are healthy, and she has so much help! Her mother-in-law is available to her almost at-will (and at no cost), freeing Anna up to take German classes and have sex with various accented men. She sends a text and Ursula magically picks up her sons from school. She calls Ursula and suddenly she has a night free to spend with her husband. Ta-da!
I’m all for at-home parents taking all the help they can get, but as someone who doesn’t have in-home help, or daycare, or my child in school, I cannot believe that Anna doesn’t take better advantage of her free time—which she’s had for years. I can imagine a person in the heady rush of child-free time taking a few weeks to adjust and figure out what to do with themselves, but years? No. Honestly, it drove me crazy that Anna devoted so much time to navel-gazing and destructive behavior instead of learning the local language, reading a book, writing a novel, volunteering, getting another degree, going to a museum, or for heaven’s sake, just taking a nap.
On the other hand: Am I being too harsh? Is Anna in the grip of profound mental illness–depression seems the most likely–that somehow accounts for her myriad irresponsible choices and inability to appreciate the good parts of her life (particularly her children)?
4. I found it weird that I’m reading a novel in 2015 that punishes a woman for having sex, even adulterous sex. Very nineteenth-century novel.
End of spoilers.
Anyway, I recommend this book for its writing and because people are going to be talking about it, and if you read it, you will definitely have something to say.
I’m off to find a collection of Ms. Essbaum’s poetry, because I’m guessing it’s amazing.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.