‘Hausfrau’ by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau

Fiction – hardcover; Mantle; 256 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel, Hausfrau, seems to be everywhere at the moment. I don’t normally succumb to hype, but there was so much “buzz” about this book I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. I now wish I hadn’t bothered. This is a horrid, grubby story written in a plodding, pedestrian style. I truly don’t understand the appeal.

A bored housewife

The book focuses on Anna, the hausfrau (housewife) of the title, who is an expat American married to a Swiss banker. The couple lives in a suburb of Zurich and have three children: two young sons and a baby girl.

Outwardly, they look like the ideal family, but Anna is desperately unhappy, suffers from insomnia and rarely feels at ease in her own skin. She has lived in Austria for nine years but has never bothered to learn the language so hasn’t made any real friends. She’s also struggling with the idea of motherhood.

Anna hadn’t longed to be a mother. She didn’t yearn for it the way other women do. It terrified her. I’m to be responsible for another person? A tiny, helpless, needy person?

She’s not even sure she’s married the right man, because her relationship with Bruno is one-sided: they rarely speak (he hides away in his office when he’s at home) and together they don’t do much socially. Anna can’t drive and doesn’t have a bank account of her own, so her independence is limited. Yet Anna’s passivity has merit:

It was useful. It made for relative peace in the house on Rosenweg. Allowing Bruno to make decisions on her behalf absolved her of responsibility. She didn’t need to think. She simply followed.

When she finally decides to go back to school to learn German, she sets off a chain of events that have long-lasting repercussions. Here, she meets Archie, an expat Scotsman, with whom she has a rather sordid affair. But as the story unfolds, we learn that this is not the first time Anna has been adulterous. Extramarital sex, it seems, is one way of making her feel alive.

Pedestrian prose

I think my problem with this book was not so much the content — yes, there’s quite a bit of sex in it, but it’s written so coldly that it’s not exactly titillating — but the way in which the narrative plods along in pedestrian-like prose. I’ve read reviews describing the writing as “haunting”, “elegant” and “exquisite”, others say it’s written in a “cool European tone” but I think we must have been reading different novels. Essbaum is a poet, but her novel-writing style is far from lyrical: for most of the time it’s perfunctory, mechanical and wooden. Don’t believe me? Here’s an example:

Two weeks later, on a Sunday, the last day of the month, Anna, Bruno, Ursula, and the children boarded a 10.00 a.m. train. They were on their way to Mumpf, a town in Kanton Aargau near Switzerland’s north border, where Daniela, Bruno’s sister, and her partner David lived. It was Daniela’s fortieth birthday. Taking a train often made more sense than driving. Today the choice was made by circumstance: with Ursula joining them they couldn’t all fit inside the car. The only inconvenience of the plan was two changes. David would meet them at Bahnhof Mumpf when they arrived.

On top of this, the author treats her readers as if they can’t think for themselves by spelling out every single thing, including all the metaphors:

‘There are two basic groups of German verbs,’ Roland said, ‘strong and weak. Weak verbs are regular verbs that follow typical rules. Strong verbs are irregular. They don’t follow patterns. You deal with strong verbs on their own terms.’ Like people, Anna thought. The strong ones stand out. The weak ones are all the same.

Even the bits of the story that focus on Anna’s sessions with a therapist are nothing more than too-obvious vehicles for getting certain messages across to the reader. Indeed, they’re about as subtle as a garbage truck roaring down a quiet residential street at 5 in the morning.

‘A lonely woman is a dangerous woman.’ Doktor Messerli spoke with grave sincerity. ‘A lonely woman is a bored woman. Bored women act on impulse.’

Aaaaargghhh! Can you hear me screaming from here?

There’s a couple of shocking revelations midway through the story that do add a frisson of excitement — let’s face it, the sex scenes don’t achieve that — but I find it hard to say anything particularly positive about Hausfrau. It just didn’t appeal on any level. Perhaps the best thing was the ending — and I’m not just talking about the final two sentences, which pack a real punch of the oh-my-I-didn’t-see-that-coming variety, it was the fact I could put the book down knowing I’d never have to pick it up again!

Clearly there’s an audience for these kinds of novels judging by all the five-star reviews on Amazon and all the buzz about it on Twitter, but I’m not it. If I wanted to read a book about a depressed (and repressed) married woman I’d simply reread Madame Bovary

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31 thoughts on “‘Hausfrau’ by Jill Alexander Essbaum

  1. Ah, you too! I have been reading about this one everywhere, and nobody whose opinion I trust seems to like it. It wasn’t until I read Guy Savage’s review (https://swiftlytiltingplanet.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/hausfrau-by-jill-alexander-essbaum/) and connected that with my own reading of Voice Over by Celine Curiol (http://anzlitlovers.com/2015/03/30/voice-over-by-celine-curiol-translated-by-sam-richard/) that I made what may be a tenuous connection with Oblomov, that famous Russian story about a C19th ‘superfluous man’ who’s incapable of doing anything of importance. Oblomovism (according to Wikipedia) was a sign of the decadent times, indicating a waste of talent by someone who doesn’t fit social norms, a reaction, if you like, to having nothing of any real importance to do anyway. (See http://anzlitlovers.com/2013/06/01/oblomov-by-ivan-goncharov-translated-by-c-j-hogarth/),
    Did these two authors have Oblomov in mind, or is it just a coincidence? Whatever, I bet most of the Amazon enthusiasts aren’t making that connection… like you, I am baffled by the appeal. Perhaps it’s just a triumph of marketing… maybe the sex scenes make it a kind of European 50 shades?
    I had thought I should read it too, but that pedestrian writing puts me off. Your comments put me in mind of Opportunity by NZ poet Charlotte Grimshaw – the book was widely praised and not just in NZ, but I could not understand how anyone could admire the prose, it was so dull.

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    • Oh, thanks for reminding me about Oblomov: someone told me about that novel years ago and I remember thinking it sounded like the story of my life: I could quite easily spend every day in bed reading and not do anything with my life. It’s a weird kind of paralysis of choice combined with a mix of laziness and social withdrawal. And perhaps that’s why I take against novels featuring characters that suffer the same condition. In the case of Hausfrau, though, the character also seems to be depressed but no one, not even her therapist, has picked up on it because Anna is very good at not admitting the truth to herself let alone anyone else.

      I’m impressed by Guy’s review: it’s much more thoughtful than mine and he has highlighted some good aspects of the novel. But I just couldn’t bear the clunky wooden writing style, perhaps not helped that I read it immediately after Marguerite Duras’s rather sublime The Lover (review coming soon).

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  2. Oh I do love a good scathing review! The hype is too much for me to read it. Your review actually makes me want to read it more, because it sounds like there’s snark potetial 🙂

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    • I don’t often write scathing reviews because it’s so rare for me to read a book I don’t like: after 30+ years of reading adult novels I think I’m pretty good at knowing which books will appeal. My instinct with this one was right: it wasn’t for me. But then I saw it popping up on blogs and everyone saying how good it was, and I thought maybe I’d jumped to the wrong conclusion. And you’re right: bad reviews do sell books. I’ve bought many a title on the basis “that it can’t be as bad as X says it is”!

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  3. Thanks for the review – I’ve been deliberating over this one for some time, but I’ll now strike it off the list. It was released here with very little fanfare, which I thought I bit odd compared to the publicity I saw on Twitter.
    Now, what do I buy with the money I’ve saved… 😉

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  4. I loved this book! Maybe because I’m European? I didn’t know about the hype when I read it so I went into it with no expectations (other than my own reasons for choosing to read this book). A pity it wasn’t for you.

    You’re right, the sessions with the psychologist were rather obvious vehicles for bringing the message across, but that was fine for me; I liked the philosophizing most of the time – although I didn’t think it was very likely they would have discussed all these issues. Also, it wasn’t clear at all when exactly she saw the psychologist – she only seemed to go to German class, then on to her lover, and back home.

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    • Well, as I said on Twitter Judith, the world would be a boring place if we all liked the same things.

      I’m not sure this book is very European though. It feels American and, in some places, xenophobic. She really slags off the Swiss quite a bit, as if it’s all their fault she can’t feel comfortable there, instead of making a bit of effort — learning the language, for instance — and playing a more active role in her boys’ school. There’s a really telling scene near the end when Anna tries to contact her new friend, Mary, the Canadian expat, and can’t get hold of her because Mary’s doing volunteer work and has just got her driver’s licence. Anna is angry and jealous that Mary’s made more progress in a few months than she’s made in 9 years. The point, it seems, is that you have to actively pursue life and not sit back and wait for things to happen to you. Anna sits and waits for everything, but has surprising initiative and confidence when it comes to seeking out lovers. A weird contradiction.

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  5. I’m so glad I read this review, because I’ve been reading so many good things about this that I had considered getting it. Now I don’t have to….. 🙂

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  6. I thought she was hard on the Swiss as well – it sure wasn’t an invitation to come and visit friendly Switzerland!
    As Laura did, I loved reading your not-so-loving review. In many ways I agree with you, but I did like the choppy way the book was put together. It was way too much like books I’ve read before, though (more Mme. Bovary than Anna K. ). What I liked best about the book was that it made me want to talk about it. It made me wonder why this type of book appeals to so many people still. And, I felt the frustration of Anna’s passivity.

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    • She’s not very nice about the Swiss despite the fact she married one and makes no real attempt to get to know them or their language.

      I think not-so-loving reviews are important — if everyone praises books and only ever publishes good reviews it makes it hard to sort the wheat from the chaff, as it were. And as I point out in my exchange with Lisa (above) I actually think bad reviews help to sell books, too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Something else to: if it’s a well-written review (as yours is), would-be readers can sort out the elements that you disliked to determine whether or not it might work for them. You mention, for instance, choppy writing – that wouldn’t bother me at all, I suspect. The theme, based on what you say, might interest me, but only because I’ve read something else that seems relevant. But her writing style – the words she uses, that I can see for myself right there in the extract – that’s what settles it for me and why I wouldn’t be bothered with it after all.

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  7. Feel so much better after reading this review. I thought I was one of the few… I borrowed it from the library and I found it so depressing and weird… I did not even reach a 1/4… I returned it. Told myself I have too many good books to read to waste my time on this novel.

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    • I probably would have abandoned this book about 1/4 of the way through too… but I’d specifically requested it from the publisher so thought I was duty bound to read it and review it — so that others wouldn’t have to. LOL.

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  8. I haven’t read it, but have certainly read many rave reviews, and always suspicious of the hype. But if you haven’t read it already, please do read Jamaica Kincaid’s the autobiography of my mother, her protagonist could well be yet another alternative to the woman who rejects the many roles woman are apportioned, one who acts on her instinct and says it how it is. Passive she is not. Absolutely brilliant, lyrical prose, I’m stunned by it, in awe of the writer, I wish it was just being published, its been hidden under a bushel for too long!!

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  9. It’s funny, isn’t it – after deciding not to get it, I think I might now just to compare my experiences with the Swiss and hers.

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  10. LOL! I abandoned this book as the writing annoyed me so much. It is good to see your book taste continues to match mine.

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