Book Review: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

hausfrau official coverPUBLISH DATE: March 17, 2015 (pre-order here)
PUBLISHER: Random House
PAGES: 336
FORMAT: Paperback ARC
SOURCE: Goodreads Giveaway
SYNOPSIS:
Anna was a good wife, mostly. For readers of The Girl on the Train and The Woman Upstairs comes a striking debut novel of marriage, fidelity, sex, and morality, featuring a fascinating heroine who struggles to live a life with meaning—“a modern-day Anna Karenina tale.”

Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband, Bruno—a banker—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 with an ease that surprises even her.

But Anna can’t easily extract herself from these affairs. When she wants to end them, she finds it’s difficult. 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 is no going back.

Intimate, intense, and written with the precision of a Swiss Army hausfrau arc coverknife, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut novel is an unforgettable story of marriage, fidelity, sex, morality, and most especially self. Navigating the lines between lust and love, guilt and shame, excuses and reasons, Anna Benz is an electrifying heroine whose passions and choices readers will debate with recognition and fury. Her story reveals, with honesty and great beauty, how we create ourselves and how we lose ourselves and the sometimes disastrous choices we make to find ourselves.

First of all, the synopsis calls Anna the “heroine.” I’m not sure I would call her that. She’s clearly the protagonist and narrator of Hausfrau, but her moral code is so twisted that I think she’d be more of an anti-heroine. What I liked about her though is how self-aware she is. Anna has a reason for every action, and a thought process she never lets anyone – not even her psychoanalyst – in on.

One of the things I most appreciate in Hausfrau is Essbaum’s playful use of language. Anna is learning a new language (after 9 years of scraping by with only English) and these German classes dig deep and analyze the similarities between grammar and life. It sounds like a weird connection, but it really becomes a tool for uncovering the ideologies behind grammar rules. Grammar reflects the way we organize life. Anna seems to make these connections with ease, and boy does she have a knack for wordplay and puns.

Oh, and there’s sex. This is no “lights fade to blackout as the couple reaches the bed” simplification. Essbaum writes erotic scenes unabashedly, but I wouldn’t go so far as to compare Hausfrau to Fifty Shades as Sunday Express UK does. That comparison irked me because Anna might be slightly addicted to sex, but at least it’s between two consenting adults. Anyway, Hausfrau might make you blush, especially if you read it in a public place so be warned. (I make these mistakes so you don’t have to.)

I enjoyed reading Hausfrau, but my interest multiplied tenfold at about 2/3 of the way through. An oh, that ending. Such powerful words.

The only thing I want to acknowledge that bothered me while reading was Anna’s analysis sessions because I think psychoanalysis is a bunch of crap for the most part. I guess you could call me skeptical. There were only a couple of passages from her sessions that I actually found helpful. I kinda got the sense that Anna thought it was all a bunch of crap too.

As for being a modern Anna Karenina tale, I can’t speak for that. I have yet to read that one, but I did purchase a copy of it when I was about half way through Hausfrau, which might illustrate the effect this novel had on me. I’m intrigued about the other Anna now, but it doesn’t look like I’ll have time to read Tolstoy until May.

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