Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband Bruno and their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno or even with her own thoughts and feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters into with an ease that surprises even her. Tensions escalate, and her lies start to spin out of control. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there’s no going back. – Goodreads
Hausfrau is the story of Anna Benz, an American woman living in Switzerland and married to a Swiss man. Anna has three young children, and she spends her time taking care of them. As a result of being a homemaker in a country where she doesn’t speak the language, Anna is an unhappy, unfulfilled and socially isolated woman who finds solace in extra-marital affairs.
Now, that might turn you off. It very nearly turned me off (you know how I feel about cheating). But what saves this book is that it is incredibly well written. I frequently found myself pausing to re-read a particularly affecting paragraph, or just to imagine the scenery. The story takes place in a small town just outside Zurich, called Dietlikon. Essbaum’s description of the Swiss setting is masterful – I felt like I was there, walking beside Anna as she took one of her walks through the lush countryside or rode the tram or enjoyed a cup of coffee in a Swiss cafe.
In addition to her ability to turn a phrase, Essbaum employs some clever literary tricks that help create a balanced view of the first person narrator, and tie in different aspects of the book. The first trick she employs is to weave Anna’s sessions with her psychotherapist into the plot. This allows us to hear the therapist’s assessments of Anna’s behaviour and character, which balances out the narrative perspective nicely, and allows some of the readers’ misgivings about Anna’s choices to be voiced in the text. The other is her use of the rules of German language (as Anna is taking German lessons) to mirror Swiss-German culture and, at times, Anna’s reflections on her own character. Both of these tricks served to enrich the novel and create added depth.
This can’t have been an easy book to write. Essbaum set herself up with a very difficult character, one whose behaviour makes her even less sympathetic. But it is a perfect example of a book that, while featuring a cast of unlikeable or difficult characters, is so well written as to draw you in and keep your attention, in spite of how the characters make you feel. This is rare – at least, it’s rare for me. Usually if I don’t like a main character or a set of characters, I don’t like the book. It’s very difficult to impress me so much with writing ability that I am able to come away from the story feeling that it’s one I’d recommend, even if I didn’t pull for the protagonist. But Essbaum did this, and then some. This is a new release worthy of the hype. Just make sure you’re able to handle some emotional hits when you decide to read it!
Author: Jill Alexander Essbaum
Published By: Random House
Released: March 17, 2015
Genre: Fiction, Character-Driven, Self-Exploration
Date Read: March 9-15, 2015