Hausfrau: A Novel

Hausfrau: A Novel - Jill Alexander Essbaum Anna Benz, ex-pat American, married to a Swiss banker and living in Switzerland for 9 years has managed to have three children and run her household but not bothered to learn German or even “Switzer-Deutsch”. She gets through her days by keeping to herself. She is depressed, bored and lonely. Much to the relief of her husband and mother-in-law she agrees to two things: one – she will start therapy, two – she will take German lessons. As Anna attends German class her German vocabulary increases and during her visits with Doktor Messerli she (and the reader) learn more about Anna, the woman.

One thing the reader is privy to but Anna refuses to share with her therapist (or anyone else) is the fact that while she has no close friends, Anna has affairs. Lots of them.

Hausfrau is Anna’s story and she has no problem justifying the affairs to herself and tries her best to convince the reader as well. Ms. Essbaum’s word play in this book was impressive. I enjoyed how she would take a small snippet of a German lesson or a doctor’s appointment and weave it into the telling of the next part of Anna’s story. Kudos to Ms. Essbaum for her creativity as it never ceased to impress me as I was reading. Anna’s psychoanalyst sessions force Anna, and by turn, the reader into thinking about the themes running through the book … marriage, fidelity, secrets, family, self respect and love. There were so many parts of this book that had me nodding my head thinking, “Good job Jill, very well done!” The writing was clever and smart.

In all honesty I picked up this book on a whim based on the title. I guess it appealed to my German side. If you speak German you know that “hausfrau” most commonly refers to a woman who probably does not hold a job outside the house and spends her time looking after home, hearth and family. However depending on the inflection one gives the word it can also be a genuine (or back-handed) compliment or, a snide derogatory judgment. In the case of this book is seems to be a combination of all of those.

According to Doktor Messerli “A bored woman is a dangerous woman.” The idea of an unhappily married, bored woman embarking on an affair is not a new concept by any means. Classics such as The Scarlet Letter, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary through to contemporary fiction such as All The Things That Never Happened and The Girl On The Train all have adultery as one of the main threads carrying the story. Paraphrasing Dr. Messerli (again, because she really is quite wise) “A mistake made once is an oversight. A mistake made twice is a choice but a mistake made a third time is a decision”. In the end Anna learns that decisions also have consequences. As I read the book I found that I did not care for or sympathize with Anna much, however I did find her intriguing. I found myself so drawn into her rationalizations and dramas that there were tingly moments of intense anticipation and tension on my part as a reader. That certainly kept me turning the pages. While on some level highly predictable I was still surprised by the conclusion to Anna’s story. That sounds a little oxymoronic … predictable surprise … yet that was the case. I hope to meet Anna again in another book sometime down the road because I’m curious to know how things work out.