Book Review: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

I was going to post this review last week but I got sick on Wednesday and since then I have been curled up in bed, hugging a cup of tea and kleenex.
tumblr_inline_mxcshrnwE31r8dkpkThe worst is that this is the first time I’ve been sick in about two years. I had forgotten how awful you can feel. How you can cough for five minutes straight. How you can use a whole box of kleenex in a few days. How you can feel so helpless and trapped in your bed because you don’t want to go out and get other people sick. How you lose all motivation to do anything. Being sick is the worst.

I decided to go to work on Thursday because I haven’t missed a day since I started almost a year and a half ago. But when all my co-workers heard my scratchy voice and saw my runny nose, they avoided me like the plague. And so Friday I decided to stay home. I have been drinking lots of tea, sleeping, and being generally lazy ever since. I’m not fully cured now but I’m definitely better than I was on Thursday and Friday.

Okay back to books. For our August read, my book club read Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum. Some more details about the book are below:

Genre: Adult Fiction, Psychological Thriller

Format: eBook

Pages: 336 pages

Publisher: Random House

Publishing Year: 2015

2015 Reading Challenge: A book set in a different country

The book centres around Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, who lives with her Swiss husband Bruno and their three young children (Victor, Charles, and Polly Jean) in a peaceful suburb in Dietlikon, Switzerland. Though she leads a comfortable, well-cared-for life, Anna suffers from depression. She feels trapped in her marriage and in a country where she doesn’t seem to belong. Bruno seems emotionally unavailable whenever Anna seeks his attention. Her need to not be alone leads her to begin sexual affairs with several men. Anna is surprised by the ease in which she begins these relationships. 

“Anna was a good wife, mostly.” – Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Unaware of her affairs, Bruno suggests she sees an “analyst”, Doktor Messerli, in order to address her depression, which leads to some interesting discussions on philosophy. By Doktor Messerli’s suggestion, Anna begins to take German language classes to integrate herself more into the Swiss culture. But she still feels out of place.

“The native friends of Bruno’s stayed outdoors, and Anna and her foreign acquaintances remained indoors. How emblematic, Anna thought. They’re free to move in open air through their own world. We are locked in a box of otherness. There’s a line of demarcation. They tolerate our presence but will never welcome it.” – Hausfrau

Anna begins to lose control of her family life, and the life she has with these various men. The two lives collide and her lies begin to unravel. She can’t seem to hold it together and she must eventually face her actions and the series of events that led to that point.

“What’s been done cannot be undone. There was peace in that.” – Hausfrau

One thing that shocked and struck me in this book was that Anna does not have a bank account or a driver’s licence to her name. Her husband controls the family’s finances and Anna gets around by bus, train or carpool. As a feminist, this is appalling to me. But I’m sure this is much more common in the present day than we think.

Anna didn’t even want to be a mother. Now that she has her children, she loves them, but it was not something she would have chosen for herself. She experiences insomnia, and spends her evenings walking in the forest and up the hill near her house to contemplate how miserable she feels. This may be why she finds freedom and release in sleeping with strangers. She often remarks how she feels lonely and needs to be with someone. And because Bruno ignores her, she seeks solace elsewhere.

“‘A lonely woman is a dangerous woman.’ Doktor Messerli spoke with grave sincerity. ‘A lonely woman is a bored woman. Bored women act on impulse.'” – Hausfrau

A few times I was cringing as Anna did things. I was like no Anna, no, why! She is not the most likable character, but there is something that keeps you engaged (maybe I began to develop empathy for her) and you want to read more.

“In their most recent analysis, Doktor Messerli pressed Anna to consider the source of her passivity. What did Anna think lay at the root of her problem? Did Anna know? Had she ever thought about it? But she hadn’t. Not really. It was just something she knew about herself. That was it. What more was there? The Doktor called her out, told her no, she hadn’t thought about it, neither deeply or superficially. For, if she had she’d see what the Doktor saw” – Hausfrau

One of my fellow book club members said this book was very similar to Anna Karenina. I unfortunately have not read that book, so I cannot confirm, but I will take her word on it. Her one pet peeve with the book was that it followed too closely to Anna Karenina. Also I have heard that this book has hints of 50 Shades of Grey in it. Even though I haven’t read 50 Shades, I can see how Anna’s sexual encounters could be considered erotica. But you quickly realize by Part Three, that this book is not an erotic romance novel.

Essbaum’s writing is beautiful at times and crude at others. It moves quickly between scenes with Anna and Doktor Messerli discussing several interesting topics, including dream interpretation, predestination, and the unconscious mind; and then jumps to scenes with Anna in a man’s apartment performing illicit sexual acts.

“Anna asked Doktor Messerli if there was a correlation between the English word ‘trauma’ and der Trauma, the German word for ‘dream.’ There’s always a correlation between one’s dreams and one’s wounds.” – Hausfrau 

Several scenes in the book focus on Anna’s conversations with a man named Stephen, who is a pyrologist, he studies fire. Anna asks Stephen various questions about fire; how it’s formed, what happens when it’s extinguished, the colour of fire, etc. Our book club was trying to figure out the significance of these conversations. My thought was that Anna thought of fire as a metaphor for her being able to correct her mistakes, and eventually “rise from the ashes.” But it was never really made clear. She even asks Bruno questions about the existence of God and Heaven. These questions that permeate Anna’s mind give us a good view into her current state.

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers but I will say that if you read this book you must carefully consider all of Anna’s actions, thoughts and words, because they foreshadow what will happen.

“The plot of her life, Anna realizes, had already been published.” – Hausfrau

Our book club gave this read a 3.5 out of 5 (this is an average – some members felt like it was a 4, others a 3). We had some hardy debate about this book. Several book club members (myself included) felt that this book didn’t go into enough detail about Anna’s past. We get a good glimpse into Anna’s current state, but we felt like Essbaum completely disregards a part of Anna’s life that could give insight into her depression (why she is the way she is). Doktor Messerli asks Anna at one point about where she grew up. Anna dismisses the question and says that it is not important where she grew up, and it is never brought up again. All we know is that Anna’s parents died in a car accident when she was in her teens. She mentions an aunt and cousin, but she holds no meaningful connection with them, she hasn’t spoken to them in years. One of our book club members said that maybe Essbaum does not delve into Anna’s past because she wants the reader to “fill in the blanks” with their own interpretation. Maybe one can ascertain that because Anna holds no strong familial connections, she seeks comfort and a sense of belonging, which is why she forms these sexual affairs with various men.

But I counter argued that if Essbaum is indeed trying to create a novel about depression and mental illness (which I think that she is trying to do), then she needs to provide a more thorough explanation of how Anna came to be the way she is, and her past can help to explain that. Depression and mental illness is a topic that so many people have a hard time understanding. It is difficult for someone to understand Anna’s situation and feel empathy for her unless they’ve experienced depression themselves. Therefore it may be hard for a reader to “fill in the blanks.”

Overall a good read, but it would have been great if there had been more focus on what led Anna to this point in her life. And less focus on Anna’s thoughts and conversations (such as the pillow talk with Stephen and philosophical discussions with Doktor Messerli). The conversations are really interesting, and I understand why some discussions were in there, but others do not lend anything to the storyline and could have been removed to highlight some of Anna’s past. The talks with Stephen about fire begin to feel repetitive and stale after awhile. Eventually I was like okay I get it, Anna likes fire, it must be an important symbol/metaphor.

Also Essbaum quickly transitions between passages/scenes in the novel, which confused me. At times I thought I was reading about something happening in the present before I realized that it was just Anna reflecting on something that happened a few months before.

Do you agree with our points/arguments? Have you read the book and have a completely different interpretation? Let me know in the comments below!


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