Published by Random House
Publication date: March 17th 2015
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction, Literary
Anna is an American, married, mother of three who lives in a suburb of Zurich with her Swiss husband. Despite her efforts she cannot acclimate to Switzerland and exists in a state of low-level depression that expresses itself through having multiple affairs. She is the wife in Jill Anderson Essbaum’s Hausfrau, a new novel that is evoking a plethora of vigorous response, largely against Anna. A response that I can’t quite get behind not because I agree with Anna’s actions but because Essbaum’s portrayal of her from early on is such that her actions are not unexpected. Even as the plot unfolds to a level of catastrophe, there is little that comes as a surprise. Not nothing, because there are two events that come out of the blue but they only serve to reinforce Anna as created by Essbaum.
Anna’s depression is not new, but it is exacerbated by living in a foreign country with a difficult language and small children. Essbaum allows us into Anna’s experience of the German language with prose that can feel curt and abrupt. Her husband Bruno goes one step further by insisting she speak a Swiss-German hybrid called Schwiizerdütsch and by speaking this hybrid with their two sons in front of her, making her feel isolated in her own home. Bruno is a good provider but not in any emotional sense. In this way, the scales are balanced—neither Bruno nor Anna is particularly likable. However, in his brusque way, Bruno tries to help Anna by getting her to take German classes to feel more comfortable. Essbaum does a marvelous job of echoing Anna’s interior plight with her study of the German language. She learns that the conditional in German is used for if-then situations and
Anna found little relief in this. ‘If I am caught…then I am f*ed.’
At the same time, other aspects of Anna’s nature are treated with a flippancy that muddles the case for adultery as a result of her depression. She thinks
These men were simply the embodiment of urges she no longer wished to deny herself. ‘It’s just a handshake, really. A casual greeting with alternate body parts.’
It is these kinds of inconsistencies that work both for and against Anna as a fully formed protagonist. For each sentence that defines her there is another that obscures her. She comes off as sad and entitled, hopeless but willful, depressed and impulsive. It is her appreciation for the Swiss Reformed church (a branch of Calvinism) that is the most telling aspect of her personality.
There’s nothing we can do to free ourselves. So the fate of every soul is foreordained… Prayer is pointless. You’ve bought a ticket but the raffle is fixed…So, whenever this crisis presented, Anna would remind herself that, one way or another, it didn’t matter. Either her fate was predecided or she had no fate. There was nothing she could do to change it. Therefore when she worried it was never for very long.
She is being acted upon and therefore has no control over her actions or their consequences. This is just one of the ways in which Hausfrau is a novel that judges as much as it is judged. Through the themes of psychology, religion, interpersonal relationships, language and even maternal love Anna is character likely to evoke an opinion. Whether by design or happenstance Essbaum presents a woman who forces the reader to judge her, one way or the other. Either she is to be sympathized with or blamed. In doing so, we are saying as much about ourselves as we are about her.
Have you already read Hausfrau? If so, you know there are spoilers I did not discuss here but I’m part of a great new site, The Socratic Salon, where we’ll be discussing books, including their plot twists, in greater detail. On Wednesday we’ll be talking more about Hausfrau. Be sure to stop by—it’s all about conversation and we want to hear from you!