“Bored women join clubs and volunteer. Sad women have affairs.”
That’s the statement of a reductionist, Anna thought, but didn’t feel like arguing the point. “You think I’m sad?”
“Knew it the moment I saw you.” Anna asked how that was possible. “A man can smell a woman’s sadness.”
“And you smelled mine.” Anna was offended by the word “smell.” As if sadness could be covered up with roses. As if despair might be washed off with soap.
“And took advantage of it.” Anna was perturbed and fascinated and something else, though she couldn’t pin it down. Guilty? Found out? Caught in the red-handed act? Something like that.
Archie corrected her. “And responded to it.”
“There’s a difference?”
“You’re not sad?”
This time it was Anna’s turn. “Irrelevant,” she lied. She shifted in bed. Neither spoke for a minute or two. “What do you like about me?”
Archie laughed. “So it’s that kind of talk we’re having, eh?” Anna shook her head and Archie softened. “You’re complicated. You can’t be cracked.”
Like a safe. Except I’m not. “Thanks, I guess.”
“You’re welcome.” They settled onto their backs, each looking up at the ceiling. “Why’d you say yes?”
Now it was Anna’s turn to laugh. “What else would I have said?”
Anna Benz is a thirty-seven-year-old American housewife and mother of three (sons Charles and Victor, ten-month-old daughter Polly Jean). She lives in Switzerland with her husband Bruno, a banker with Credit Suisse, and leads a fairly uneventful life: she takes German language classes, has regular appointments with a therapist—oh, and she’s having an affair. We mustn’t forget that.
Told over three months, and spanning several years via flashbacks, Jill Alexander Essbaun’s Hausfrau is first and foremost a tale of disaffection and dissatisfaction. Anna is very much a fish out of water, despite having lived in Switzerland since 1998—in Dietlikon, Bruno’s hometown, near Zürich. From the beginning it’s obvious Anna isn’t content with her life. She is comfortable in the sense that she has a family and her husband is gainfully employed, but her comfort ends there. She has never quite acclimated to her environment, and thus is forced to rely on Bruno more than she’d like in order to navigate Swiss life. And though she loves her children, she never imagined herself as a mother, nor can she say with certainty that she truly loves her husband. She has a “version” of love for him, as she states several times throughout, but not true love—not the genuine article.
This is the crux of the novel: the search for love—the real thing—amidst so many different versions of it. For Anna, this quest entails stepping out on her husband and engaging in affairs with other men—three, to be precise. When we first meet her she’s already involved with her second, Archie Sutherland, a Scottish man she meets in her German language class. Archie and Anna connect more or less immediately, and soon she’s risking everything by going off with him whenever possible to… well, not make love, as love has nothing to do with it, but to fuck (a fact driven home by Archie’s overtly vulgar language—he talks dirty like someone who thinks they’re being erotic when really they’re just gross and indelicate). Because for Anna, there was only one true-blue love: her first affair, with scientist and academic Stephen Nicodemus. It’s her short relationship with Stephen that implanted her mind with a false narrative of what true love looks like—if it even exists at all. And as Anna’s relationship with Archie, and later Karl, continues to pull her away from her family, in sometimes life-altering ways, she is also pulled further toward reflection—on what was, and what might still be were she to decide to walk away from the equally disaffected and controlling Bruno once and for all.
Hausfrau’s structure is a bit intimidating at first. Essbaum jumps around somewhat erratically between several points in time: the present is constantly interrupted by quick sojourns into the past, or to her therapist Doktor Messerli’s office. These rapid-fire jumps in time accomplish several things: beyond simply revealing more of Anna’s personality and indiscretions, they also offer insight into her detached emotional state, compounded by the narrative’s apparent inability to stay in one place for too long. Physically, the somewhat nonlinear structure, broken into such short chunks, helps move the narrative along with a pace akin to that of a thriller or a mystery novel.
While Hausfrau remains an engaging read from beginning to end, Anna herself is a frustrating character, though deliberately so. Despite being apparently well-versed in actually conducting an affair, she’s sloppy and not all that adept at sneaking around. For much of the narrative I assumed that, on some level, this was because she wanted to be caught—to be confronted by her infidelities, as if doing so would provide her with the spark necessary to finally abandon Bruno and find whatever it is she’s searching for. However, when one of her sons accidentally discovers Anna and Archie kissing, Anna goes to great lengths not in concocting some elaborate reason as to why they were together but instead to threaten her offspring, to the point of tears, into keeping his mouth shut about the whole thing. It’s in this late-in-the-novel interaction that Anna’s selfishness (and borderline sociopathy) was fully revealed to me, and any lingering sympathy I had for her went out the window.
Fortunately, sympathy is not a requisite for enjoying a novel, and Anna’s actions were not without a horrible karmic backlash on multiple fronts of which I won’t spoil here. Suffice it to say, the novel did not go where I expected it to, with Charles, the son who saw Anna and Archie together, being used as a will-he-or-won’t-he-spill-the-beans plot device. Without wanting to give too much away, the novel’s final month, November, is brutal, raw, and expertly pays off what has been previously established.
I also appreciated the emotional power struggle that takes place to all sides of Anna throughout. While she herself came across as self-centred and at times quite morally vacant, the characters of Mary, Edith, and Doktor Messerli play pivotal roles as, respectively, the angel and devil on Anna’s shoulders, and the unemotional ethical compass positioned between the two. Their presence offers a set of much-needed emotional counterweights to the men in Anna’s life, all of who seem frequently reticent and one-dimensional.
Hausfrau isn’t a comforting read. The novel is laced with tragedy to varying degrees, and by the time the final chapter is reached, it’s obvious just how much of the narrative has been a slow, inevitable spiral down a drain of Anna’s own making. It is in the realization, near the end, that she was never as alone as she thought, that all her decisions and the cost of her actions, having destroyed whatever equilibrium she’d achieved, were based on something categorically untrue, that the narrative’s tragic underpinnings are painfully laid bare.
When speaking about pain, Doktor Messerli explains early on, “It’s instructive. It warns of impending events. Pain precedes change. It is a tool.” In many ways, this is the thesis for the entire novel. It rings true throughout, echoing through the details of Anna’s first versions of love through to the haunting, absolutely fucking perfect final line, when everything becomes clear to the reader: Anna sacrificed her entire life and the lives of those around her in the pursuit of a version of something she only ever imagined but never actually had.