A Book in Need of a Book Club: Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau

photo 2 (4)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).

Spoilers ensue. 


 

If I were part of a real-life book club, here are some things I’d want to talk about.

photo 1 (3)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.

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11 thoughts on “A Book in Need of a Book Club: Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau

    • It’s the cover of the finished book–I read an ARC–and I think there’s a video floating around that shows the 100+ cover designs they tried before they arrived at this one.

  1. I am very intrigued by this, having lived as a wife overseas and having known many frustrated/lonely expat wives. I like the idea of deep psychological portraits and am curious about the question you pose – if readers think it is too much. Sounds like a risk I’m willing to take to find out. Thanks for the review!

  2. Spoilers in this comment!
    I felt the same as you after reading this book. I wanted so badly to discuss it for many different reasons. 1. I’m assuming it is supposed to be a modern re-telling of Anna Karenina, but I feel like Anna (from Hausfrau) had mental issues even before, possibly helping to lead her into her destructive behavior. My take on Anna Karenina (and it’s been a while) was that she was fine until she fell in love with someone else, then her situation caused her to become depressed.

    2. I had thought about the divorce thing, too. The best thing I could come up with is that she probably assumes, knowing Bruno’s character and the fact that she has no family left and he does, that he and his mother would make it very hard for her to keep her children. She would most likely have to stay in Switzerland to be near them, which, in her state of mind, wouldn’t alleviate her loneliness. Really, her children are the only thing she seems to love at this point. It is also possible that in her depressed state she doesn’t see the point in divorce, or that it would be too much work. She is obviously on a destructive course, and it is possibly what she wants to be on? She has just been letting things happen to her – a divorce would be taking action.

    3. Yes! It drove me crazy that she just wandered about all day many days, knowing that her mother-in-law would take care of everything! No wonder her mother-in-law was unfriendly towards her. I get that she was depressed, but who gets to do that, and not be called out on it a lot sooner? And, maybe get some real medical attention?

    4. Is she being punished for having sex? I didn’t really think of that. While the affairs were going on? Or after Bruno found out? She is being punished by her husband after he finds out, yes, but by the author? By the readers? I can’t decide what I think about that. As a reader, I just felt sorry for her, that she couldn’t find happiness. If I felt angry towards her, it was because I wanted so badly for her to try harder to get some help.

    Thanks for asking! 🙂

    • 2. I agree on the subtext of the no-divorce discussion–but then she leaves her kids in the most permanent way! Great point re: “just letting things happen to her.”

      3. Yes! x100

      4. Punished in the sense of the story (as in NCNs and teen slasher movies: women who have promiscuous sex die).

      • 4. I see what you mean, now. No, not good. She definitely didn’t deserve her fate. I wonder why the author went that route? And, if she hadn’t, what would have happened instead? (Now I want an alternative ending!)

  3. “hausfrau” makes one want to be in or start a book club. Great to duscuss how far have women really come in this trying to be subtle about it, but misogynistic world we still live in today! Loved reading it.

  4. Yes, I believe Anna is in the grips of a profound mental illness and has been for much of her life. The Jungian therapy was great, but in the end didn’t really help her; the therapist didn’t seem to recognize the full extent of her lostness, or remained aloof from it, or somehow felt constrained by her profession and created boundaries. Her profound mental illness renders much of her privilege entirely moot. Interesting, how blank her childhood seemed to be – what is the author/protagonist saying and not saying? I found the book deeply upsetting; a great feat of writing but I would never read it again. Also difficult to hear people criticize those in the depths of severe depression for not doing something constructive.

    • I feel like it’s been forever since I read this, but I like your point about the largely blank slate of her childhood. I’m not interested in reading it again either.

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