Frisky Reads: Hausfrau By Jill Alexander Essbaum
Oh, what to do with Hausfrau? I promised myself when I started reviewing books that I wouldn’t give negative reviews, under the premise that if if I didn’t have anything nice to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all. But Hausfrau has me stuck: I can give an unmitigated glowing review of two-thirds of the novel, but I could only mouth a slow-motion “NOOOOOOOOOOO” as the final act of the book spun out of control.
All right, well, we’ll get there. Hausfrau is poet Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut novel. Anna Benz is an American wife living in Dietlikon, a suburb of Zürich, with Bruno, her Swiss husband, and their children, Victor, Charles, and Polly Jean. Anna is adrift in Switzerland, has only just started to take German classes after nine years living in a German-speaking country, has managed to keep herself socially isolated, and, in the two years preceding the start of the novel, has become a serial adulterer. So we find her in the midst of a mixed bag of characters: Her ill-tempered, distant husband; her warm, friendly, favorite son, Charles; her psychoanalyst, Doktor Messerli; a new friend via German classes and Canadian emigré, Mary; and her lovers, Archie, Karl, and, um, a few others. (No spoilers there, trust me.)
Hausfrau narrates Anna’s attempts to reconcile herself. Her appointments with Doktor Messerli, scattered throughout the narrative, are little shards of wisdom that’ll cut into you – Doktor Messerli is so good, and so observant, and has such beautiful and effective use of language that I found myself asking if she was a figment of Anna’s imagination; but then again, Anna is so willingly self-ignorant that it’d be hard to imagine her possessing that sort of insight. To wit:
“A mistake made once is an oversight. The same mistake made twice? An aberration. A blunder. But a third time?” Doktor Messerli shook her head. “Whatever’s been done has been done to an end. Your will is at work. You beg a result. A repercussion.” Anna held her left hand with her right and rested both on her lap. “A precedent has been established. You will get what you want. And there’s no need to seek out these mistakes. For now it is they who seek you.”
Which, by the way, is the whole framework of the novel. As Anna continues to have and cultivate affairs, she starts to meditate on her passivity – the book’s favorite verb is “slip” – and while normally a passive character is just flat-out boring to read, it becomes clear to the reader and to Anna that she is willfully passive; she’s passive as a mode of defense, as a coping mechanism. She’s not happy with her marriage, but she settles into doing what Bruno wants her to do, which is to stay, because it’s easier to stay than to leave. Blame it on her passivity. She has affairs with other men because it’s easier to cheat and lie than to try to negotiate her marriage with Bruno, who is to Anna’s mind utterly Swiss – efficient, pragmatic, cold, distant. Blame it on her passivity. She makes a friend in Mary, but only because Mary is so insistent upon being her friend, and it’s easier to say yes to Mary’s plans than to refuse and possibly insult her. Blame it on her passivity. Anna has a will, she just refuses to exercise it to any end but her own convenience.
Needless to say, I think, that all comes crashing down around Anna – as the good Doktor told her, a repercussion will follow her repeated mistakes. My issue is the way in which it comes crashing down around her, which is to say, so spectacularly as to become actually farcical. I’ll try not to spoil anything here, but there’s a twist that occurs at the end of the second act that’s heavy-handed. It’s meant to give a parallel to events that happened in Anna’s past, but Essbaum’s ruminations on Anna’s past are excellent – truly extraordinary – and stand on their own without the reader having to get beaten over the head with heartstring-tugging.
And from there, the narrative becomes sort of hot-potato haphazard. Tertiary characters are brought up and never mentioned again; motifs – especially an ongoing motif about fire – are never really developed and resolved into the main narrative; various of the characters act in ways that aren’t just unexpected but genuinely outside of the characters that have been built over the previous several hours of reading. As Anna’s precarious network of lies come tumbling down, we watch Anna making various attempts to resolve her immediate problems, and failing repeatedly. Which isn’t such a bad idea, in terms of plot – life works out that way, sometimes – but the narration presents a solution as if it’s really going to work out this time! – Then pulls a bait-and-switch on the reader, and has a door slam in Anna’s face, leaving her increasingly navel-gazing and dejected as the novel works its way to the end. Over and over and over. It’s meant to build tension; instead, it gets redundant.
Then Anna herself becomes inconsistent, and we wind up with a very nineteenth-century, mad-woman sort of ending for the novel. What I enjoyed the most about the first two-thirds of the novel was that Anna was a fairly ordinary woman with some serious emotional complications, but who wasn’t a mustachioed supervillain or an anti-hero – just a woman with lower-than-average ethics in a life situation that would be genuinely difficult for almost anyone. I’ve been savoring female characters who are not Mary Sues, who aren’t spectacularly likeable but aren’t evil, who are, in other words, realistic, normal women, neither idealized nor demonized. Hausfrau did its lead character a disservice by transforming her into a caricature of herself by the time it concluded.
I still recommend the novel, though. Essbaum’s poetic control of language is fantastic, and it makes Hausfrau an edifying read. The sex scenes are really, really good. Many of the novel’s sentiments about friendship, unrequited love, will, and action versus inaction ring true in a perfect-sine-wave sort of way. Just steel yourself for the end.
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum will be available on March 17, 2015.
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