Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum
April 3, 2015 § Leave a comment
Anna is a sad and lonely woman. She lives a beautiful life outside Zurich in a beautiful house with her husband Bruno and their three Swiss children, who chat together in Schweitzerdeutsch and leave her feeling very excluded. She’s been living there for nine years without having made any systematic attempt to learn German, although she has picked up a great many phrases to get by. The book opens when Anna, convinced by her therapist that she needs to make more of an effort to feel at home, begins German classes and, at the same time, an affair with a fellow student.
In the novel much is made of—or perhaps I should say Anna makes much of—her passivity. She lets herself get caught up in someone else’s plan without making a real decision to do so, for example, although personally I would call that a variation of “the way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives.” So Anna might not really be passive (after all, when the Archie, the attractive student in her class, asks her what she is doing later, her answer—“you”—seems predatory rather than passive, even if it does spring from a destructive impulse) but she isn’t, as the self-help pop psychophilosophy would have it, living intentionally, being her best self or making every day count.
Anna’s predicament of loneliness and purposelessness is far from uncommon, in life or in literature, but is exacerbated by her lack of a life beyond her family and household, and intensified further by her foreignness in a place that is hostilely indifferent to foreignness.
A lot of the novel’s discussion of being a person living in a foreign country felt very heartfelt (Essbaum herself lived in the same place she locates Anna, even if the author’s experience appears—from the blurb—to have been somewhat happier), and this is perhaps what contributed to a sense of being stuck in a loop—and not just in terms of plot, with Anna making little to no progress with her therapist, her marriage or anything else in her life. The narrative drive was moved on primarily by external events and actions rather than Anna’s development or decisions. Anna’s insistence on her passivity—actually a euphemism for inertia borne of depression—is frustrating in the way living with a depressed person is frustrating.
There’s a lot of good writing in Hausfrau, but nothing heartstopping. Anna’s two expat friends, Edith the Ice Queen and Holy Mary are rather caricatured, although Mary does manage to shrug off the shackles of stereotype a little. It occurred to me in an unoriginal moment that the novel itself is rather Swiss—efficient, good at what it does, but ultimately unexciting.