Julie Christine's Reviews > Hausfrau

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum
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really liked it
bookshelves: austria-germany-switzerland, contemporary-fiction, read-2015

That morning’s German lesson left Anna pensive. The German language, like a woman, has moods. On occasion they are conditional, imperative, indicative, subjunctive. Hypothetical, demanding, factual, wishful. Wistful, bossy, of blunted affect, solicitous. Longing, officious, anhedonic, pleading. Anna tried to make a list of every mood she’d ever been in but ran out of words before even half her feelings were named.

This is a curious insight into Anna Benz, because the eponymous Hausfrau seems to have very few moods indeed. She is depressed, lonely, bored, detached, aimless, hopeless, with occasional forays into guilty, apprehensive, and obsessed. All kissing cousins of misery, these moods. And Hausfrau is a novel of monochromatic misery.

The reasons why this American woman, who lives in a quaint and tidy suburb of Zurich with her banker husband, Bruno, two young sons, Victor and Charles, and an infant daughter, Polly Jean, is so unhappy are vague. Deliberately so, it would seem, for Anna withholds most of her truth even from her Jungian psychotherapist, Doktor Messerli. She was reasonably close to her parents, but they died in a car accident long ago. She hasn’t been back to the States since moving to Switzerland nine years earlier, but she has only one friend in Switzerland, not counting her husband, with whom she isn’t particularly friendly, or her mother-in-law, who merely tolerates Anna in order to spend time with her beloved grandchildren. She wants for nothing, and the only expectations placed on her are that of a mother—duties that she carries out with distracted but very real affection—and of a wife, a role she seems mildly bewildered by.

Anna is full of holes where happiness, contentment, reason, engagement, and gratitude ought to be. And she fills these holes with cocks. Too blunt for you? Then don’t read this book. The only thing Anna is blunt about, where the blurry lines of her existence sharpen into straight edges, is sex. And she has a lot of it, though rarely with her husband.
Anna loved and didn’t love sex. Anna needed and didn’t need it. Her relationship with sex was a convoluted partnership that rose from both her passivity and an unassailable desire to be distracted.
The novel swivels from Anna’s home life and the arm’s length relationships she has with everyone except, in surprisingly tender moments, her children, to the German language classroom (she has finally taken the great step of formal instruction after years of muddling around, though Swiss German still escapes her) where she meets her current affair, Scotsman Archie, and steps tentatively into female friendship with sweet, unsuspecting Canadian, Mary. The narrative takes side streets into sessions with Doktor Messerli, who is full of profound aphorisms such as, “A bored woman is a dangerous woman” and into dead-ends as Anna recalls a brief love affair with a visiting American scholar over a year earlier.

Nihilistic characters typically see me slapping a book shut and looking for something with a redemptive story. So, color me surprised that I found this novel compulsively readable. With an alchemist’s skill, Essbaum takes flat, heavy, dull metal of depression and turns it into literary gold. Being a student of foreign languages, I adored her metaphorical journeys into the German language, such as the quote I opened with. Perhaps labored at times, but they serve as a breathing counterpoint to the suffocating bleakness of Anna’s existence. Her characters are keenly crafted, her use of language precise as a Swiss watch.

I hesitate to rate this too highly, for the entire premise of the novel is based on one young woman’s (yes, although Anna is thirty-eight, from my mid-forties perspective, she is young!) belief that it is too late, her life is written and she is incapable of change. Profound depression can thwart one’s perspective to such a hopeless degree, but too often the author’s heavy hand interfered by introducing coincidence and tragedy. Anna never really stood a chance.

Yet, like any train wreck (sorry), I could not look away. Read at your own risk. I’m glad I did.
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Reading Progress

March 12, 2015 – Shelved
March 12, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
April 26, 2015 – Started Reading
April 27, 2015 –
page 90
27.78% "Oh, I have such a hard time caring about pathetic characters, yet I found myself immediately caught up in the story and compulsively turning the pages. And I know it won't end well. It's inevitable. Not a coincidence that Anna shares a first name with another famous literary Anna. Perhaps the train references are a bit of heavy-handed foreshadowing . ."
April 28, 2015 – Shelved as: austria-germany-switzerland
April 28, 2015 – Shelved as: contemporary-fiction
April 28, 2015 – Shelved as: read-2015
April 28, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-16 of 16 (16 new)

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Julie Christine Yeah, I don't know. I don't suspect this will be my thing after skimming some professional reviews: "relentlessly bleak" "one-note" "laboured". We'll see.


Julie Christine This ended up being my thing. Remarkable. Frustrating. Admirable. Review to come.


message 3: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Ha, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. Yes, Depression does have the ability to "thwart" the lens of life - I love when authors showcase that so well. (And yes-thirty eight is young, these days and times especially! :)


Julie Christine Cheryl wrote: "Ha, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. Yes, Depression does have the ability to "thwart" the lens of life - I love when authors showcase that so well. (And yes-thirty eight is young, t..."

I think this is one of the reasons I both resisted and related to Anna. I've experienced major depression and I know logic has no hold on one's perspective in the depths, but I felt Essbaum exploited Anna at times, making her "suffering" so one-note. She seemed not just depressed, but amoral. But even this is fascinating!


Debbie "DJ" Didn't read your review as currently reading myself. Great to see four stars though :)


Julie Christine Debbie "DJ" wrote: "Didn't read your review as currently reading myself. Great to see four stars though :)"
So curious to see where you end up with this. I'm surprised I admired it as much as I did, given the subject matter.


Michael So glad you liked this, and maybe surprised. I appreciate you sharing about your own depressions. Dealing with it takes an unsung courage. And that's what I found and almost admired in Anna. And some kind of integrity in not letting the shrink or friends shape her thinking. No honest with others but no shirking on seeing her condition as it was. No basking in her privilege either (but as you say no engagement either).


Julie Christine Michael wrote: "So glad you liked this, and maybe surprised. I appreciate you sharing about your own depressions. Dealing with it takes an unsung courage. And that's what I found and almost admired in Anna. An..." Michael, I know! I'm surprised, too. I love your insights. This book has so many layers and I think different readers bring out each one, regardless of what the author may have had in mind. It's a book we truly bring our histories to and filter through our own perspectives in a deeply personal way.


Carol I so have to get to this book. Excellent review Julie.


Julie Christine Carol wrote: "I so have to get to this book. Excellent review Julie." Thank you, Carol! I can't wait to see what you think. It's not an easy one to appreciate.


Carmen Great review. Monochromatic misery is right!


Julie Christine Carmen wrote: "Great review. Monochromatic misery is right!" Thank you, Carmen. I'm still thinking about this book . . .


Margitte Love your insights into this book. Perhpas I was not in the right frame of mind for it.


Julie Christine Margitte wrote: "Love your insights into this book. Perhpas I was not in the right frame of mind for it." Margitte, this is a tough read- I understand not connecting with it, for sure! xoxo Julie


Warwick Have you read Nell Zink's The Wallcreeper? Same basic themes and even setting as Hausfrau, but much more engagingly written, I thought.


Julie Christine Warwick wrote: "Have you read Nell Zink's The Wallcreeper? Same basic themes and even setting as Hausfrau, but much more engagingly written, I thought."

I haven't, but I'm adding it now- thank you for the recommendation!


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