Book Review: “Hausfrau” by Jill Alexander Essbaum

There are some novels that use mediocre words to tell a compelling story and novels that use poetic language to tell an average story. Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut novel, Hausfrau, is neither of these. Essbaum finds middle ground by telling the story of Anna Benz, an American housewife living in the suburbs of Zurich, in a way that is both captivating and engaging.

Cover of Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum -- A blue background with a cluster of red and pink roses

Anna’s story isn’t much different from that of many housewives or stay-at-home moms. She is bored, unfulfilled, and feeling out-of-place. Her relationship with her Swiss banker husband, Bruno, is cordial but lacks spark. Her mother-in-law, who lives nearby, is icy towards Anna, barely able to contain her dislike for Anna. And then there are the children — two small boys and a baby girl who Anna often leaves with her mother-in-law, Ursula, while she attends her German language class, her psychiatry sessions, and her frequent trysts with one lover after another.

Hausfrau has frequently been compared to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary and rightfully so. (Personally, it reminded me more of that Unfaithful movie starring Diane Lane and Olivier Martinez.) Anna’s ennui is similar to that of Emma Bovary’s although she lacks the passion and intensity, Where Emma’s cravings were clear and focused, Anna’s are half-hearted and uncertain. She does not know what she wants, just that she wants…something. And, like Emma Bovary, she believes she might find it in her sexual affairs. But as with everything else in her life, it’s not long before each of those affairs become about as exciting as a damp washcloth, so Anna moves on to the next. Aside from the sexual encounters, Anna tries to fill in the gaps through superficial friendships and lazy attempts at mothering her children. Everything she does is a half-assed attempt at living. She is merely existing. This is where many may find her relatable.

“Is there a difference between shame and guilt?” Anna asked.

“Shame is psychic extortion,” Doktor Messerli answered. “Shame lies. Shame a woman and she will believe she is fundamentally wrong, organically delinquent. The only confidence she will have will be in her failures. You will never convince her otherwise.”

The beauty of Hausfrau doesn’t lie with Anna’s story but with the telling of it. Anna is bordering on unlikable throughout most of the novel. She’s narcissistic, self-indulgent, rude, noncommittal, passive, and lacks accountability. She’s an angsty, bored teenager in a grown woman’s body and yet you still want to know her, if only to understand her.  But it’s the sensuality of her erotic adventures interspersed with thought-provoking sessions with Doktor Messerli, all leading up to a foreseeable ending that make Hausfrau worth reading. Essbaum’s background in poetry is evident in her writing, and she transitions seamlessly between past and present. She evokes a sense of longing and disconnect that’s reflective of Anna’s own thoughts and emotions. You won’t find strong, inspirational women here, but what you will find is a beautiful use of words that paints a realistic picture of a woman who is a good wife, mostly.

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If I had a dollar for every time I got distracted, I wish I had some ice cream.

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