Expat book review: Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Let me start by saying that Hausfrau was not a light, happy read. It is also not an easy one to review. I heard about it this week when I was perusing Facebook (I think it was mentioned in the New York Times feed) and I immediately went out and bought it. It isn’t often that you hear about a book that seems to so parallel your life and those of your friends. The first line, however, didn’t especially draw me in,”Anna was a good wife, mostly.” Since I hadn’t read any reviews thoroughly before I started the book, I had no real expectations. Even though it didn’t hook me in immediately, I did end up reading the whole  book in one day. One way or another, this book stays with you.

Set in Zürich, the novel follows the perilous, destructive path of an American woman named Anna, who is married to a Swiss banker. The couple has three children and seem to be living the idyllic life in a small village outside of the city. She doesn’t speak Schweizerdeutsch and barely speaks German as the novel opens. Her husband seems to ignore her almost entirely, and she also really doesn’t have a huge attachment to her children either. She often leaves them with her mother-in-law, Ursula, who lives in the same village and regards Anna with not a lot of affection. I must say, I can understand Ursula’s position, although she did seem the typical German (Swiss) mother in law that we all know and love. She loved her grandkids and helped as much as she could, but she often got annoyed with Anna’s lack of interest and surely felt used (and lied to) as Anna throws herself down the path of self-destruction.

Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum IMAGE: www.randomhouse.com

I also developed no real affection for Anna as the novel progressed. She is passive and compliant, but in the sense that she lets life happen — or so she thinks. When a man speaks to her in her German class, she lands in bed with them. When a childhood friend of her husband tries to kiss her on a walk in the woods, she sleeps with him, even though the voice in her head tells her it might not be the right thing to do. Anna is drifting through life, is generally sad, and doesn’t feel the need to actually make her own choices. She has no real friends and enjoys being alone. She doesn’t really even try to hide her affairs, even though she thinks she is being clever. But in not making choices, she is, of course, choosing. She chooses not to learn to drive; instead she rides the trains around the city. She chooses not to learn the language, which isolates her from the people around her even more.

Early on we meet her therapist, Dr. Messerli. After a while I really skimmed over those bits. I found them tedious and couldn’t invest myself in Anna’s seeking her self, maybe because she wasn’t really invested in it. What did interest me was the commentary on the German language as a sort of parallel with life and with being Swiss, or not. Many of the cultural comments range true with me as a long-time expat in a German-speaking country. We’ve all had a friend like her friend Mary from German class, who is desperate to make friends and eager to learn, throwing herself into Swiss life, volunteering at school and joining clubs. We may at one time or another all have been in her position ourselves.

The book jumps back and forth in time, and you learn a few of her secrets — the affair with the man in German class was not her first. There are of course a lot of sex scenes, but I didn’t find them especially compelling or even interesting by the time I was halfway through. The foreshadowing is clear from early on. You just wait for the other shoe to drop. And of course, it does. Tragedy unfolds. What else could we expect?

What bothered me about the tragic ending, and I promise not to give too much away here, is that it seemed so anti-woman and almost Biblical. There were distinct parallels with Anna Karenina in the tragedy. But really, the strongest message was that when a woman commits adultery, it inevitably leads to tragedy. Although the author writes about Anna’s escapades in an almost neutral voice (almost as if she is watching it happen from afar), her judgment of the characters peeps through. In the end, Anna is complex, even if she likes to think she isn’t. It is hard to even have sympathy for her or to even care about her as she makes one bad choice after the other. And I really never expected her to save herself or find the right path.

I still can’t even say whether I enjoyed the book. Anna’s passivity and her choices were not easy to identify with. But that isn’t the point. The book is very well written, and I appreciate the fact that the author is a poet. The book was an emotional roller coaster that drew me in, despite myself. It is definitely worth reading, but prepare to be challenged. It is both emotional and melancholic.

From Amazon.com > Hausfrau (USA)
From Amazon.de > Hausfrau (Germany)

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