Between caring for three children, visiting a Jungian analyst and taking a German class, Anna wouldn’t seem to have much time for extramarital liaisons, but like her namesake, Madame Karenina, she manages.
Anna, who’s American, has lived near Zurich with her Swiss banker husband, Bruno, for nine years yet still can’t speak the language. She gets by in elementary German but is barely competent at Schwiizerdutsch, the local variant that “leaps from the back of the throat like an infected tonsil trying to escape.” She doesn’t have a job or a bank account; her parents are dead; and she has only one friend, another expatriate she doesn’t even like very well. Her husband is cold and distant, her mother-in-law “was usually never blatantly unkind.” That double negative is vintage Anna, who parses her feelings into ever finer distinctions. A few years ago, she drifted into an affair with another American, who went home without knowing he’d fathered her third child. Now she’s studying German, which her analyst suggested as a way to become more connected to the world, though Doktor Messerli surely didn’t mean she should jump into bed with a Scotsman she met in class. “Anna loved and didn’t love sex. Anna needed and didn’t need it. Her relationship with sex was a convoluted partnership that rose from both her passivity and an unassailable desire to be distracted. And wanted.” As Anna floats through her life and this novel, taking endless train rides and insomniac walks, the story is interrupted by philosophical conversations with her shrink: “What’s the difference between passivity and neutrality?” is a typical gambit. There’s plenty of tension—will Anna get caught?—but it’s hard to be invested in the life of a woman who doesn’t care much about it herself.
A smart book that entertains page by page but doesn’t add up to anything larger.