Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Bored women join clubs and volunteer. Sad women have affairs”

At one point, early in the novel Hausfrau, protagonist, 37-year old Anna, an American living in Switzerland, asks her therapist, Doktor Messerli, “Is there a difference between shame and guilt?” This is an interesting question from a bored married woman who engages in a series of affairs right under her banker husband, Bruno’s nose, and it’s interesting because Anna feels neither shame nor guilty, just temporary relief as she hits one violent orgasm after another.

But why is Anna having these affairs? Is there some sort of central point to her behaviour or is she simply self-destructive? The novel begins with a simple sentence: “Anna was a good wife, mostly,” and it’s that qualifier that drew me into this tale, of a bored, displaced housewife, living in the town of Dietlikon, who turns away from her home life to seek sensation.

hausfrauAnna & Bruno have three children and a stagnant marriage. Anna has never really adjusted to life in Switzerland; she’s decided to try and learn German when the novel begins, but the classes seem more a segue and alibi for torrid affairs than anything else. As the plot unfolds we see Anna, the housewife, who’s  really anything but, disappearing day after day to meet a lover while her mother-in-law takes care of the children, fixes the meals and generally steps in to take up the considerable slack left in Anna’s highly noticeable, lengthy absences.

To say Anna isn’t easy to like would be putting it mildly. She’s self-focused, depressed, morbid, and emotionally disconnected from her life. Night after night, her husband retires to his home office, shutting out Anna, and rejected repeatedly, her response is to arrange assignations with her lover, almost as though she’s begging to be caught–an exposure which at the very least should bring her festering marriage problems to a head.

We ask ourselves where things went wrong? Is Anna simply a neglected wife who gets attention elsewhere? Or can part of her estrangement be blamed on the fact that she’s an ex-pat, confined by and not assimilated into Swiss culture after living in the country for nine years?

So her world was tightly circumscribed by the comings and goings of locomotives, by the willingness of Bruno, Anna’s husband, or Ursula, Bruno’s mother, to drive her places unreachable by bus, and by the engine if her own legs and what distance they could carry her which was rarely as far as she’d have liked to go.

With its graphic sexual details and an extremely unlikable self-focused main character, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau is certain to offend some readers. I’ve read some reviews which complain about the graphic sexual content and others which somehow equate Anna’s lack of self-knowledge with the author. Here’s my thoughts on those two complaints:

The graphic, repellent sexual details were ugly, and yet they created a jarring noise that directly contrasted with Anna’s subdued, emotionally disconnected life. These details also illustrate the affairs for exactly what they are: devoid of romance or lover’s talk, all that’s left are violent, profane, increasingly risky couplings.

Just because an author creates a selfish, unlikable character, this does not mean that the character’s lack of insight reflects back onto the author. While this is a third person narrative, we only see things through Anna’s perspective, so her husband is cold and withdrawn, her mother-in-law is disapproving. But by the time the novel ends, we readers have an understanding of Bruno and Ursula–even if Anna does not. This is a novel likely to generate a lot of debate if picked up by a book group. Some readers will be alienated by Anna’s behaviour, and some may take the simplistic view that there’s a moral message here (x happens when you commit adultery), and this is definitely not a book to be read by the already-depressed. Is Anna supposed to be a sympathetic character? Does the author intend us to feel sorry for Anna? Yes and No… I think Anna is supposed to be sympathetic in as far as someone is sympathetic when they labour under a major delusion and when they spiral out of control and desperately need help, but Anna is also selfish, self-focused and as far as her marriage goes, she refuses to take responsibility for something really major.  We see everyone through Anna’s eyes. She never examines her own behaviour or her treatment of other people. Also notable is Anna’s opinion of her mother-in-law, Ursula, a woman Anna dislikes and silently criticizes, but who seems to be raising Anna’s three children single-handedly while Anna disappears for her afternoon sexual encounters. Frustrating in her passivity, yes there are times you want to shake Anna silly and say: ‘you have a lot to be happy about. Get over yourself. Get a divorce if you’re that unhappy, but do something.’

Anna has a therapist, a Doktor Messerli, who becomes increasingly frustrated with Anna as the therapy fails to produce results. As the book continues, the possible cause of Anna’s depression is revealed, and then Anna’s husband, Bruno, instead of being an inattentive bore, becomes something else entirely. While Anna careens through her life, craving sensation after sensation, avoiding the deep cause of her self-destructive behaviour, the author has clearly created a character who’s supposed to be out of control, but at the same time, she cannot get beyond the suffocating membrane of depression. Anna appears to be extremely passive in a go-with-the-flow way, but she asserts herself sexually with men, and takes the initiative. She’s passive in her relationship with her husband, but with him, she’s throwing clues in his face, silently screaming for him to pay attention.

Occurring monthly, at least, were dozens of instances into which she commended a task into Bruno’s hands. It was he who dealt with local bureaucracy, he who paid the insurance, the taxes, the house note. It was he who filed the paperwork for Anna’s residency permit. And it was Bruno who handled the family’s finances, for he was employed as a mid-level management banker at Credit Suisse. Anna didn’t even have a bank account.

First impressions would indicate that Bruno is controlling. But has Anna simply abdicated her responsibilities? Are the affairs a type of rebellion? This is a novel certain to generate a lot of opinions–my opinion is that Anna, as an ex-pat, is initially forced to abdicate those responsibilities, and then it simply becomes a way of life. When people step into life in another country, they cannot grasp how their lives will change and the extent of the things they are sacrificing, so it’s notable that Anna’s first affair is with a fellow American.

Given that the book’s title is Hausfrau, it should come as no surprise that underlying Anna’s troubled marriage, there’s a plot thread concerning the lives of other secondary female characters. Anna’s acquaintance, Edith, for example, also takes a lover and claims it’s a move that improves her skin. There’s another character, Mary, a fellow student in Anna’s German class, who is intriguing. Mary is married, addicted to cheesy romance novels, has children, is on the plump side and appears to be a veritable Betty Crocker. She befriends Anna and Bruno, and says she is glad to have a female friend. But there are no  less than three occasions when Mary’s actions hint at some dark ulterior motive. In spite of the fact I disliked Anna and was frustrated by her repeatedly, I liked Hausfrau. I liked the chances the author took in creating an amazingly self-destructive character who reminds me of two great fictional characters whose names I won’t mention as to do so would be a plot spoiler.

Marina Sofia’s review, and thanks Marina for pointing me towards Hausfrau in the first place.

Review copy

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18 Comments

Filed under Fiction

18 responses to “Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

  1. Thanks for the mention and I’m glad you liked it. I really enjoyed your thorough and thoughtful review. Anna is going to divide opinions, that’s clear, but I like the way you’ve included the two other expat women who ostensibly have created a better, happier situation for themselves, but perhaps all is not quite what it seems on the surface. There was an interesting interview with the author in which she says she started writing the novel from the first person POV but kept getting stuck and annoyed with Anna’s whingeing self-pity, so she switched to 3rd person for a bit of detachment.

    • That’s interesting about POV. Someone sent me a link to a professional review of this book that was quite nasty. Funny how readers mix up characters with their creators. Anyway, thanks for the recommendation.

  2. A very intriguing review, Guy. It does sound like a great book for discussion groups. Some of my friends and family have spent time living abroad, and their ex-pat experiences vary quite widely. It can be rather isolating at times.

  3. Great review Guy.

    You raise an important point about flawed characters. I believe that one purpose that art shows serves id to show characters like Anna. It is an important reflection upon life.

    Sometimes readers cannot seem to get past such fallible protagonists. Personally I like unlikeable characters.

  4. Now I really want to read it. Yours and Marina Sofia’s reviews are so different, which shows how complex the book must be.

  5. I was already interested after reading Marina Sofia’s review now I’m even more interested.
    Interesting that they kept the name Hausfrau for the title and not Housewife.

    Thanks God characters don’t have to be likeable for a writer to write a great book. There would be no crime fiction, otherwise.

    Reading your thorough review, I guess Anna would get on my nerves.

  6. Sounds interesting Guy. My parents did the whole ex-pat thing when I was a kid (I suppose I did as well, but I don’t think kids really qualify for the title). Looking back it was certainly a bubble-life, a closed world that even without the isolation seemed quite limiting (same faces, same stories, same antics, rinse & repeat).

  7. Equating character with author is just idiocy. It is remarkable though how many do it.

    This sounds very interesting. I can see why she switched to third person, first sounds like it could easily have been suffocating.

    My TBR pile is a bit full at the moment, otherwise I might well pick this up. “Anna was a good wife, mostly,” is a great opening.

  8. There’s a particularly nasty professional review I read sent to me from a friend. It’s so negative. I can see that this book would annoy people or put people off but the author is talented which is not what the review I mention stressed.

  9. I’m so glad you wrote this review, Guy, because I had seen only dismissive reviews guilty of the author/character identification and ‘unlikeable character’ problem. Have you read Voice Over, by Céline Curiol, which features the same sort of self-destructive inertia? I reviewed it on mine, see http://anzlitlovers.com/2015/03/30/voice-over-by-celine-curiol-translated-by-sam-richard/
    It seems to me that they are, in an obscure kind of way, versions of Oblomov…

  10. No I haven’t read it Lisa, but after reading your review I can certainly see the connection.

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