You cannot be indifferent to Hausfrau, the new novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum set in Switzerland. It is a novel that will spark an array of contradictory reactions: You will loathe the main character Anna or you will weep for her. You will recoil at the graphic sex scenes or find them erotic; you will be intrigued by the psychological and linguistic analysis, or find it tiresome. Whatever happens, the power of the story will keep you reading to the end.
If you happen to be a foreign resident of Switzerland you will recognize many of the quirks and frustrations of living in this would-be paradise, ruthlessly exposed by Essbaum. But if you are in any way defensive of Switzerland, you will bristle at the Swiss bashing.
Hausfrau is the story of a woman who has lost her sense of self and abdicated responsibility for her life. She follows her Swiss husband back to his home town near Zurich to settle down and raise a family, but nine years on she still can’t settle in. She’s depressed and remains an outsider, to her husband, her children and her community – stifled by it all.
We already know that appearances can be deceiving but in Essbaum’s debut novel the gulf between appearances and reality is so wide it’s disturbing.
The world sees a well-dressed American mother living in an affluent bubble in Dietlikon, “the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led”. Anna Benz has accepted the age-old deal of husband (a banker, natürlich) making the money while she keeps house and looks after their three young children. The children’s school is metres away from their home and she has babysitting on tap thanks to her mother-in-law.
There is nothing Anna could not change in her life if she wanted to, as her psychiatrist tries to tell her again and again. Why the passivity, the indifference to her fate? That is the central question of the book and while we get many hints, it really remains unanswered because Essbaum provides scant details of Anna’s former life, apart from the fact that her parents were killed in a car crash.
The story begins when Anna is finally starting to make an effort by beginning a German language course and attending analysis sessions. At the same time she embarks on a reckless affair, seemingly on a whim.
Essbaum manages to successfully switch between different strands and moments in time – events at home, the language classes, memories, lovers’ trysts, therapy sessions, descriptions of Swiss culture, and a lot of Anna’s internal reflections. The scenes are short, some snapshots of just a few lines, but you instantly know where you are and the story is constantly moving forward.
The book is short but it is not short on ideas and Essbaum manages to sketch interesting relationships through a few interactions. The children remain peripheral characters, as Anna is going through a phase of waltzing in and out of their lives.
I don’t know how readers with no familiarity with Switzerland will tolerate the level of detail, bordering on information dump that happens throughout the novel. I’d say most readers will find some element that doesn’t grab them – the analysis sessions, all the commentary on language structure and vocabulary, the cultural information, the sex scenes, the insomnia wanderings. But the whole is much greater than the parts because Essbaum has created a baffling compelling character in a story with powerful momentum.
Putting aside some people’s criticism of the moral message of the book – fallen woman pays for her sins – the story is gripping. Hausfrau was an intense and thought-provoking read and it left me with lots to think about.
I’d love to hear what other readers thought of this book, inside and outside Switzerland. Looking forward to reading your comments!
(Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
20 thoughts on “‘A bored woman is a dangerous woman’”
That went straight onto my Amazon wishlist!
Dying to hear what you think of it Marius. Might require a phonecall to discuss!
I was going to wait until the paperback came out, but because of you I may not be able to wait. I’m wondering if Anna’s life will have something in common with my experience being a “trailing spouse” when I followed my husband overseas for his job.
I always thought trailing spouse was an awful expression.The idea of trailing after anyone! Not a fair description. Anyone who is willing to make the leap into a (usually) strange far-away culture needs to be strong and resourceful to make it work. You must have had some ups and downs adapting to life in the Philippines.
I’m guessing that Anna’s life won’t be too similar to yours because she stays in the helpless isolated stage for a decade. Most people get out of that fairly soon. But I’m sure you’ll find it an interesting read.
Yes, it was the information dump and the ‘how weird they are in Europe’ American perspective which put me off this book when I read a sample on kindle. I’m not Swiss, but I still bristled at the ‘over the top’ cliched descriptions – the only thing she left out was the lonely goatherd yodeling on the mountainside! I also found repeated refs to character’s ‘thick’ accents (when speaking fluent English for Anna’s convenience) frustrating. As to the lover, no problem with the sexual refs, although somewhat cold and matter-of-fact, but the Scottish Archie with his penchant for whiskey and women (in that order) and of course, his accent. Short it may be, but I don’t think I want to spend any more pages with Anna and her tiny world. Having said all that, your review is balanced and fair, Clare and gives an excellent overview of the whole book, whereas I am commenting on a sample only. Good work.
Interesting that you agree about the information dump Safia after only reading a sample. I see the story did not grab you and you have disproved my thesis that the reader will inevitably be hooked!
Now that you mention the stereotypes – Archie with the red hair and the whisky shop. The poor Scots will never be free of the whisky label. It’s like Guinness and Irish – if I had a franc for every time somebody made a reference to the black stuff when they meet me. I cannot hold a beer at a party without someone making a comment about Irish people drinking excessively. Truly the first thing people think of.
To get back to Anna, I’ve been wondering if her character is realistic and I believe it is. In her fragile mental state, she incapable of rising to the challenge of being an immigrant. I think there are countless wives out there in despair at being trapped in the wrong country – for life!
But in Anna’s case she is seriously depressed, her passivity/ inaction is totally consistent with that. You really should read on!
Enjoyed your review, Clare, and the lively comments. I like the way you introduced it as a novel that will divide readers, especially as it took me a while to decide whether I liked it or not. (And I did like it, A LOT.)
Interesting about Archie – I really didn’t notice the whisky and, speaking as someone with a strong regional accent that is often commented upon, I really didn’t mind the references to his accent.
I also didn’t think it was about “fallen woman gets her just deserts”, more an unusually accurate picture of alienation and despair – and I saw Anna’s affairs as an attempt to ward off her despair at what she’s got herself into, and is consequently extremely irritated with the psychiatrist (despite enjoying the content of her utterances as a kind of Greek chorus commenting on her state of mind) for doing a rather poor job of connecting with her.
Hope we don’t run out of discussion points before I post my review, but I’m interested in the author’s responses to the questions I have set her ( tho’ wish I’d asked Safia’s opinion before submitting them).
So far, I really don’t like it: cliches, stereotypes and a main character I can feel no sympathy for. My main reaction 1/3 of the way through is utter boredom. But since I don’t like to give up on books I’ll persevere….and maybe I’ll change my mind!
Hi Imogen, thanks for stopping by! It’s amazing how some books polarise people. I agree about the cliches but still think she captures the Swiss atmosphere very well in places. Like the sister-in-law’s interminable birthday party. Hope you get past the boredom and start to sympathise a little. But if it is nothing but a chore to the end, at least it’s short!
OK, I’ve just finished it! As I wrote to you earlier, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I thought the despair (however dramatic or not) of being a perpetual outsider was captured very well. I actually thought Anna very un-American, except for perhaps what others may claim to be too much navel-gazing. I think what kept the book moving along for me was the fact that although Anna’s issue could be smacked with the stereotypical “first world problems” label, I actually sympathized with her immensely. I have a lot of thoughts I’m mulling over and hope to get a post up by mid-week next week!
Looking forward to seeing your review Amy. So far I agree with everything you’ve said. I also felt sympathy for Anna and a growing sense of alarm for her while reading.
I just finished Hausfrau. I thought it was a good novel. Of course, we always hope that the character will solve all her problems even when we know it’s unlikely. The ending was upsetting but right.
If I remember right, Anna’s personality problem started before her parents died. Didn’t she like to hide in her room even then? Passivity had become a habit with her. Choosing was a muscle she didn’t exercise. I was expecting that her situation (being a foreigner, lacking language skills, etc.) would be the sort of problems she’d be trying to overcome. I came to believe her problems were mainly interior and related to depression.
Her sessions with the doctor were among my favorite parts of the novel. Sometimes I became impatient with the grammar lessons, although there was so good word play.
I saw someone say there was way too much foreshadowing of the ending but in my case I really didn’t see it coming. And yet it was inevitable I suppose, in hindsight. Glad you enjoyed the book. I liked the sessions with the doctor too. My favourite parts were the social interactions, with her in-laws or friends, which Essbaum really captured well.
I also liked her social interactions with friends and family. They were probably my favorite parts too. I was thinking of the “extras,” which I liked more or less.
I have to say it’s been sitting on my shelf since last October with the bookmark still in page 122. (Which I had a little laugh when you said it was short, a novella, it’s more than 300 pages.) I couldn’t imaige another 2/3 of the same thing — I don’t need her to be a good person, or make great choices, but I need to be intrigued enough to keep turning pages and I just got bored. I did identify a little at some of the Swiss-isms and the sense of being outside of “life”. I feel like I should give it another chance, I hate leaving it unread.
I think it’s ok to walk away from a book if it doesn’t keep you turning the pages. It’s not an assignment! But I’m surprised you didn’t get hooked. I was horrified at her car crash behaviour and couldn’t put it down because I was so curious to know how this would all go horribly wrong. The book doesn’t disappoint there. So it’s 300 pages long? I read it on the e-reader, one of the first e-books I’d read and finished it so quickly, I thought it must have been really short.
Everything, for me, has the weight of an assignment, I think 😉 I hadn’t gotten as far as a car crash.
It’s OK, I meant her life was a car crash, as in disaster. Back to your assignments! 😉
Ah!!! I’m so clever! ha ha 😉 Yes, back to the real world