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

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More fiction book reviews
Barefoot Dogs
Barefoot Dogs
A Mexico City family scatters to the wind when its patriarch goes missing

Jesse Sublett, May 1, 2015

More Arts Reviews
<i>Before Stonewall</i> by Edward Cohen
Before Stonewall
The short stories in this collection from Austin's Awst Press simmer with queer rage, grief, and longing

Rosalind Faires, June 25, 2021

<i>The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid</i> by Lawrence Wright
The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid
In his account of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the New Yorker writer reports the killers are off the leash

Michael King, June 4, 2021

More by Jessi Cape
Gardeners and Librarians Join Forces to Catalog Seeds
Gardeners and Librarians Join Forces to Catalog Seeds
Seed banking on the future

April 22, 2022

Tips for Starting Your Seed Collection
Tips for Starting Your Seed Collection
Home gardener Jennymarie Jemison shows you how to save seeds

April 22, 2022


fiction book reviews, Jill Alexander Essbaum, Texas Book Festival 2015

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle