Hausfrau by Jill Essbaum is a book about Anna Benz, a deeply unhappy expatriate housewife with three children living in Zurich. She is alienated by the language, her husband is cold, her mother-in-law distant and her friends few and far between. In an attempt to regain some control over her life, she reaches out to a Jungian psychoanalyst, takes German classes and engages in extramarital affairs as her life begins to spiral.
I was first drawn to Hausfrau‘s beautiful cover, some of my favorite books were initially picked up due to interesting cover art. Then, a Goodreads review likened Hausfrau to Madame Bovary, one of my favorite classics which I’ve read twice since first encountering in it a college lit class. And, while I can see the comparison, in retrospect, I believe Hausfrau to perhaps be the more poetic — which makes sense as Jill Essbaum is a poet and this is her debut novel. There are definite echoes of The Bell Jar.
Hausfrau drew me in with the first line: “Anna was a good wife, mostly.” Boom. I immediately wanted to read more. I am strongly drawn to unlikeable protagonists, especially of the female variety. I noticed other readers claiming Anna’s character was too difficult to like, but I perhaps enjoyed her more because of my own resistance and hesitance toward finding her endearing. I mean, for all intents and purposes, Anna is a narcissist and generally what society would deem a bad person. “Some women collect spoons. Anna collected lovers.” [Also, fair warning, the extramarital sex is often and rather graphic.]
The book is not humorous, fast-paced or light — it’s a heavy read, laden with tragedy and Jungian anecdotes. At various points in the novel, conversations with Anna’s doctor are intermixed with the ongoing narrative of the story. This gives the reader a deeper insight into what’s really going on in her mind. And, although I found myself reading past, present and future on the same page, the asides never felt out of place — it simply made for a more enlightening character study.
Additionally, Essbaum succeeds in playing with language in beautiful ways that had me highlighting line after line. I believe Hausfrau veers sharply away from Madame Bovary by accessing the precision of words. Throughout the book Anna queries various people about their opinions on spiritual and psychological matters, but also on the meanings of words (labyrinth vs maze, for example). Essbaum also draws continuous metaphors between Anna and language, her German classes being one of the tenuous threads holding her to the real world. “With Anna it was all verbs. She was sloppy in her conjugations, reckless in her positioning. She confused tense with mood and relied too often on the passive voice.”
Overall, I found this to be one of the smarter books I’ve read in a while. The language bordered on lyrical and there were many passages which I found psychologically astute. As I mentioned previously, the first line of the book grabbed me immediately — the last line did the same thing, but on a different scale. I won’t spoil it, but really, the whole book is beautiful.
Recommended For: people who like their drama with a side of psychoanalysis, lovers of language and poetry