Published by Mantle on March 17th 2015
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.
Is it possible to really enjoy a book yet not be able to fathom why? I read HAUSFRAU a few weeks ago and it’s taken me until now to really settle down and put my thoughts together. On one hand it is compulsively readable. The storyline is shocking yet unputdownable. The characters wholly unlikeable yet oddly sympathetic. You see my dilemma?
One thing I am sure of is that Essbaum knows how to write beautiful prose, her play on languages and her insights into psychology and philosophy are simply enthralling. The discourse between the main character Anna and her therapist as they endeavour to get to the bottom of Anna’s ennui is compelling. My frustration with the book stems from its star, Anna herself.
Anna is a young wife, living in Switzerland who has taken on the position of observer in her own life. Despite her actions to the contrary, taking risks in her marriage, her maternal responsibilities, her sex exploits, her overall view on her life is passive. She refuses to take responsibility for her actions, instead simply floating along, utterly surprised when tragedy strikes, when she’s forced to account for her whereabouts, when people quite rightly place blame at her door.
While her actions are considered by society as morally reprehensible, it wasn’t that which made her so utterly frustrating a character for me, it was her unwillingness to make any effort at all when even the smallest of actions would have made life so much clearer and hopeful for her. We complain so often when books and movies present us with women who have been denied their own agency by men that when we’re presented with women who deny it for themselves it’s hard to imagine why.
Yet still despite my ranting about Anna, I still rooted for her, willed her to take hold of the reigns and step in. It’s probably because of Anna’s ability to garner sympathy from me that makes the ending such a bitter pill to swallow. I’m not going to spoil it but it honestly felt like a slap in the face. In a character driven novel, development is so important yet in this novel the characters seem to take steps backwards and it makes me want to tear my hair out.
Ultimately this book is a heartbreaking overvation on loneliness, narcissism and deep unhappiness that will make you wince more than once. I think I loved it but from my ramblings above, I’m still not sure why…