“Anna expects to be punished for her bad behavior, and she is, in the most terrible way. And then things get worse.”
Anna is sad. Anna is lonely. Anna is depressed. Anna is a liar. Anna is a cheat. Anna is a good wife, mostly. Despite her desire to put things in categorically order and clearly define her feelings (“What’s the difference between obsession and compulsion?” “What’s the difference between a delusion and a hallucination?”), Anna’s life is careening out of control. She has no real friends, she can’t speak the local language, she only considers herself “in a version of love” with her husband of nine years, and she’s sleeping around, rather recklessly.
The novel Hausfrau is set in Zurich, which originally drew me. My friend Nancy sent me this article and I bought it the next day. As a hausfrau in Switzerland I was intrigued to read another perspective, albeit a fictional one. The author Jill Alexander Essbaum moved to Zurich over ten years ago with her Texan husband. She felt much of the isolation and loneliness that Anna speaks of, and it’s tempting to think that some of Anna’s experiences perhaps mirror Essbaum’s own. But I’m pretty sure this is not a roman à clef we’re reading. There are, however, moments that ring true for this hausfrau: the difficulty of making friends, fitting in, communicating and battling moments of sadness and isolation.
The book is bleak, to be sure. In hindsight it’s hard to imagine any moments of lightness in the book; it all feels so weighted and charged with emotion and pain. Yet for all her self-loathing and slow-simmering anger, Anna does have a sweet maternal bond with her children that doesn’t seem to jive with who she is presented as throughout the novel. It’s perhaps the only upside to her life and suggests to the reader that perhaps Anna’s life may contain more joy than she lets on.
But, that’s not really the case. Hausfrau has been considered a modern day Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary. The tale of an unhappy housewife with little propelling her forward. There’s the modern addition of Jungian analysis (indeed, it’s highly peppered throughout the book), of course, but one could easily see similarities between this novel and the canonical works.
What doesn’t quite work for me is the intense sadness and melancholy. It’s so pervasive and so insistent that I felt smothered by it throughout the narrative. There’s no release of pressure. Though this may be a highly strategic move by Essbaum but I’m not quite sure it all pays off in the end.
I’m not sure I would wholeheartedly recommend it, but if you’ve ever lived in Switzerland then I think you’d enjoy reading about the city through a familiar lens and looking for shared experiences. You might also find it intriguing if you’ve moved abroad or trailed a spouse somewhere, as there are some enlightening points. But, overall I found it a little too dark and morose for my taste.
It’s brand new but let me know if you’ve read it!
(quote via this review)