Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum
Published by Random House
From the publisher:
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.
This book has been really polarizing among readers, and now that I’ve finished it myself, I can absolutely see why that has been the case. Let’s face it, Anna is not the kind of heroine most people root for. She loves her children, but she isn’t incredibly loving toward them – in fact, she can be distant at times, and at other times leaves them for long stretches of time with her mother-in-law. She keeps busy by taking German classes she doesn’t really enjoy and seeing a therapist several times a week. Oh, and let’s not sugarcoat the affairs. Anna has sex – LOTS of sex – with different men, on a regular basis. Some of her affairs are long-lasting, and others are short and sweet. This is obviously the thing about Anna most readers love to hate, because it’s of course disgraceful that a married woman would conduct herself in such a manner. (Let’s not even discuss the fact that if this was a married MAN we were talking about, it’d just be business as usual. But whatever.)
Anyway. While I was reading Hausfrau, and immediately upon finishing it, I didn’t like Anna much myself. She’s incredibly prickly and difficult for the reader to get to know. On the surface, it seems as though she doesn’t have much of a personality – it seems that her entire life’s purpose is to have as much sex, with men she’s not married to, as she can. But this book was one of those novels that crawled into my brain and wouldn’t go away until I spent more time thinking about it. So I did, I turned it over and over in my head until I could feel okay about what I read and my feelings about it. And that time I spent mulling it over led me to this – this book is actually kind of incredible in the way that the author manages to show the reader exactly what depression looks like, at least for this particular character, Anna.
You see, Anna suffers from chronic depression, the kind of debilitating depression that leads people to crawl in bed for days and weeks at a time, to neglect family and friends and self-care, to turn to drugs or alcohol or to hurt oneself or others. Anna did none of those things; instead, she had lots of sex. And each time, it made her feel a tiny bit better, and also a tiny bit worse, and just like someone addicted to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate depression, Anna’s addiction to sex as medication for her depression helped her at times but deeply hurt her in the long run.
I don’t believe I’ve ever read a novel that deals with depression to this degree. And I don’t know if all readers will even recognize what Anna is going through as depression – many readers just see her as an awful person who makes awful choices and therefore write her off as someone they might be able to understand, sympathize with, even have empathy for. But after spending a lot of time thinking about the book and about Anna, I get it. And I think what Essbaum did was kind of brilliant.
The ending was really tricky for me, and I am of two minds about it, but rather than include spoilers here, I’ll invite anyone who wants to discuss it to email me (please!). Also, the writing – Essbaum is an incredibly talented writer whose prose is gorgeous, almost too gorgeous for the tale she’s telling here. It was a bit much for me, honestly, but I can see the care she took in her writing and it’s definitely an important aspect of the novel overall.
So basically what I want to say is this – immediately after I finished the book I gave it 3 stars, and at this point I’m going with 4.5 or even 5 stars. The time I took to reflect upon Hausfrau really enhanced my appreciation for it, and I’m pretty impressed with what Essbaum did here. Do yourself a favor and pick it up so you can draw your own conclusions. But for me, this is fiction at it’s finest – the kind that makes you question your own initial reactions, the kind that makes you examine your own prejudices and beliefs, and the kind that does not let go long after you finish the novel. In a word, excellent.