Book Reviews

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

22725443[2]“Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband Bruno and their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich.

Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno or even with her own thoughts and feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters into with an ease that surprises even her.

Tensions escalate, and her lies start to spin out of control. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there’s no going back.” ~Goodreads


THIS is the quote that spoke off the page to me. It not only depicts life but mirrors the story in Hausfrau which are both complex and layered.


In fact, it is impossible not to.

Sometimes these lives overlap and interact. It is busy work living them and it requires stamina a singular life doesn’t need.

Sometimes these lives live peaceably in the house of the body.

Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they grouse and bicker and storm upstairs and shout from windows and don’t take out the trash.

Some other times, these lives, these several lives, each indulge several lives of their own. And those lives, like rabbits or rodents, multiply, make children of themselves. And those child lives birth others.

This is when a woman ceases leading her own life. This is when the lives start leading her.”

Oh, Anna, how I totally get you. For who hasn’t felt isolation, despair, loneliness, confusion, insecurity, depression, neediness and doubt at some point in their life? It doesn’t mean those feelings will lead a person to have countless affairs, but in Anna’s case those feelings weren’t just passing thoughts. She had a cloud hanging over her since she was younger. Her parents saw it and she herself lived it. “Solitude was her anchor. A familiar misery, and anymore the safest, most sensible approach.” 

Anna is also a great liar. A liar by omission. To others and to herself. As an adult, her husband Bruno also had had enough of her “misery” and “her sullen temperaments” and tells her to see a psychotherapist. It is in these sessions where she asks the questions that keep her up at night with insomnia and which create a world for her that is bleak. And they are questions, I myself struggle with.

I found these sessions very telling of Anna. She understood much of what she was being told but she didn’t follow through. Bruno did everything for her-she didn’t drive, she didn’t really know what he did at work, he set up her life in Switzerland and it drove me crazy. In these sessions when she “heard” what was necessary to have an active role in her life from the therapist, she instead did nothing to better her situation. She was a passive player in her life story. That passivity was shown over and over in her relationships with her children, her friends (lack-of), her marriage, her home, not learning the language. I know people like that and I want to shake them. She was in Switzerland for nine years before she actually took a class. She even admitted this to herself: “I’ve no knack for volition. My backbone’s in a brace. It’s the story of my life.” She is indifferent and calls it “new to her pathology”.

But enough of the psycho-babble. That part I completely understood of why she did the things she did (or not do). I loved how flawed and human she was. I don’t want to read about a character who has the perfect charmed life. And from the outside one would think she does. She is well off, doesn’t have to work. She has three healthy kids. A nice enough husband (well that’s debatable). Gets to live abroad-how glamorous. One would think.

The writing is beautiful. Just like that first quote in this post, Essbaum is a poet and writes in different styles of prose. She not only delves into the psychology of the mind but also religion, dream analysis and the rules of language. Essbaum’s dissection of language was a clever approach and yet another layer to the story. The language barrier is Schwiizerdütsch, which has no standards, orthography, pronunciation key and sounds made-up. For someone like her friend Mary, this would be an adventure, a challenge but to Anna another way to isolate herself from people and from her husband and children who spoke it around her.

Ugh! There is so much to dissect, discuss, agree and disagree upon with this novel. I hope I did not spoil anything for the new reader…there’s much I haven’t said. Please don’t listen to the book comparisons out there-they aren’t warranted. It’s a publishing ploy and this book doesn’t need it. This would be a fabulous book club pick and so instead of rambling anymore than I already am, I’m going to head on over to The Socratic Salon, a new book review site where spoilers are welcome. If you’ve read it head on over and join the discussion!

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