Review: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum


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.


I propose a new rule for the 21st century, for this bright new era where mental illness is less stigmatized and your grandmother has a therapist, your 6th grade teacher has a therapist, even your 5 year-old neighbor has a therapist: can we please never ever discuss what your therapist tells you? Can the patient and wise words of your psychoanalyst live in the space between her mouth and your eager, desperate brain?

Listening to someone talk about therapy is the new listening to someone talk about her dreams. So much utter nonsense that I just can’t be bothered by. Pity that the character who has second-billing to Anna Benz, a Swiss and second millenium Madame Bovary, is Doktor Messerli, her therapist. Doktor Messerli has developed her entire methodology from Freud and Jung, which means to say everything she says is a load of abstract navelgazing with no real purchase on her patient’s inner life. Unfortunately this novel, which records the rapidly unraveling affairs of lonely, passive Anna, is positively graffited with short psychoanalyst asides:

The face one wears as an adult is a mask that’s cut to fit in her youth. Every mask becomes a death mask when you can no longer put it on or take it off at will. When you mistake the persona you project for your living soul. When you can no more distinguish between the two.

I hate thinking so much about thinking. It makes my pulse gallop. Psychoanalysis of this sort (and it truly does occur and recur every few pages throughout the book) is a web from which you cannot escape. This constant analysis of Anna’s character by Doktor Messerli (who is, of course, nothing more than an authorial stand-in, a god in the sky to push the story, and more particularly, the story’s “themes” along) is professional and sanitized and incomprehensible, which renders any readerly attempt of analyzing Anna’s character cloudy. I spent most of this book stuck in a web of outdated Jungian aphorisms, leading me to groan, “Save me from all this thought so that I can actuallythink!”My mother, daughter of a German father and an American mother, often yelled when my father and us children demanded some domestic task of her, “I’m not your Hausfrau!” Anna lacks my mother’s vivacious ability to act, to exclaim, to deny, leading her to become a Hausfrau. Like Anna Kareninabefore her, Anna’s femininity translates to passivity, and her passivity translates to doom. Anna can’t speak Swiss German, despite living in Zürich for 9 years. Culturally removed, she can’t make friends. Without a bank account of her own, she can’t leave her husband. Quite basically, she lacks a vocabulary—linguistic and psychological—to get what she wants, even todecide what she wants. Anna simply can’t. And she knows it:

I am beholden to my own peculiar irony: to survive I self-destruct.

Anna’s passionate about her misery. But at a certain point even her misery becomes too much. She can no longer passively accept life; she must live. Observing these consequences is where the novel excels.

Choppy, meandering, spliced with unnecessary asides on Swiss German grammar and silly scientificating about the properties of fire, and, of course, plenty of falsely opaque psychoanalyses,Hausfrau is flawed and frustrating. But it’s believable, crushingly so, and incredible to realize that an American woman living in Switzerland in the 2000s may not be so different from Anna Karenina and the 19th century Russian ballrooms she called home and prison.

3.5 out of 5 stars