Book Review: Hausfrau: A Novel

Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau: A Novel

by Jill Alexander Essbaum
Random House, 336 pp., $26

Mad Men's Betty Draper embodied the twisted secrets of a housewife plagued by hellish sadness, sweltering isolation, and strangled relationships. Sabina, of Anaïs Nin's A Spy in the House of Love, systematically sought sexual healing in explicit extramarital affairs to ease her restlessness and fragmented self. Somewhere between, there is Anna Benz, main character of Hausfrau. In desperate need of love, myopic but not intentionally cruel, her habitual, terrible decisions block every avenue to happiness. A deeply tragic character we'd love to hate but cannot because each sliver of light in her dark world of devastation illuminates our own pain and potential steps toward tragedy. And it's mesmerizing: "This hyperbolic sadness consumed her. Except when it didn't. Which was rarely."

Striking parallels with Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary give Hausfrau a classic, timeless feel – trains, erotic trysts, and masked snarls of domesticity – while snippets of technology ("32 missed calls") root the story in modern times. Set in Switzerland, an intentionally neutral nation with similarly polished and polite citizens, expat-American Anna lives with her Swiss husband and children, all of whom she struggles to love well, and she stumbles every second, every day. She has few friends, doesn't speak the language, and functions with a shattered, shrouded psyche long steeped in fear and pain. Subconscious screams for relief from intense depression and loneliness transform her body into a vessel for her next fix. Sex is all she craves, and not at all what she needs, causing her to avoid the glare of truth with startling behavior: "A secret's safest hiding place is in the open." This is a tale of (un)consciousness, not morality, and it is very, very sad.

Still, despite a foreboding box of death announcements, secrets teetering on the brink of disastrous discovery, and gut-wrenching tragedy, the pages fly by, a testament to Essbaum's elegant prose influenced by her long-celebrated poetic chops. Symbolism abounds – fire and shadows, God and grief, redemption and place – and Anna's psychotherapy sessions incorporate fascinating philosophical elements. "What stays in shadow controls you," but in between the paint cracks and brushstrokes, this portrait of a woman possesses a glimmer of that inexplicable hope that refuses, against the odds, to die.

  • More of the Story

  • Q&A With Jill Alexander Essbaum

    The poet-turned-novelist talks about the intersection of sex and shame and the influence of Madame Bovary

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