“Why don’t you write me a trashy book and make us all rich?” Jill Alexander Essbaum’s late father used to tease. Although she certainly didn’t have her father in mind while writing the steamy sex scenes of her captivating debut novel, Hausfrau, she has him to thank. Her father’s Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins books piqued her early interest in bawdy subjects.
Hausfrau follows the carnal wreckage of a tired housewife, Anna Benz, an American expat living in a Zurich suburb with her Swiss husband and three children. As her isolation slowly festers over the years, Anna acts out against her dutiful existence through a series of scandalous affairs. To open up the tightly bound layers of Anna’s unraveling, Essbaum found it crucial to spend a lot of time in bed with her. “The more honestly I explored her sex, the more vulnerable she became and I learned a little bit more about her because I was actually with her in those intimate moments,” explains Essbaum.
“I believe in pushing envelopes… but you have to let it teeter on the edge,” she says of engineering Anna’s erotic outbursts. Even though there might be a sex scene or two that goes off the rails of propriety, Essbaum reigns in the physical fodder with a deeply engaged psychological portrait of a terribly lonely woman. Many—including here at Kirkus—have compared Anna to another famously hopeless protagonist named Anna; Essbaum credits a different influence.
“People have been saying it’s a retelling of Anna Karenina, which it isn’t. It’s closer to say it’s connected to Madame Bovary,” she says. “It’s an homage to Madame Bovary, which is a pretty close-to-perfect novel. It’s so well-written, and it’s uncomfortable, and she’s just not a terribly nice person, so it’s hard to put down.”
Like Emma Bovary, Anna is difficult to root for because she doesn’t appear to make an earnest effort at finding happiness. Anna has married a man who is a good-enough match whom she doesn’t truly love. Because she has not learned the local dialect, she’s an outsider in her small community. Her fate finally begins to change course when she undergoes Jungian analysis upon her husband’s urging to snap out of her perpetual funk. Beyond philosophizing about the root of Anna’s passive nature, her therapist recommends that she take a language class, which becomes a significant outlet for Anna—not only does she begin to understand the words spoken around her, she makes an expat friend, and takes a lover. Then another one.
Despite these various attempts to connect with her surrounding world, Anna’s floundering psyche continues to thrash about lost and weary. Essbaum, the author of several collections of poetry, elegantly crafts powerfully figurative vignettes from Anna’s therapy sessions, from Anna’s parsing of language lessons, and from her emotionally-laden train rides reflecting on her futile attempts to find solace:
Boredom, like the trains, carried Anna throughout her days….An hour earlier Anna lay naked, wet and open atop a stranger’s bed in an apartment in Zurich’s Niederdorf district, four stories above the old town’s wending alleys and mortared stone streets upon which kiosks vended doner kebabs and bistros served communal pots of melted Emmental. What little shame I had before is gone, she thought.
Surprisingly, the narrative’s mounting suspense is not driven by the overhanging question of whether Anna will get caught for her betrayals, but rather if she will right the spinning out-of-control. Essbaum, who spent a difficult period of her own life living as an expat in Switzerland, recalled many personal challenges in developing Anna’s lost state: “We were a lot closer than I expected us to be….What Anna sees is what I saw…the trains that she took, are the trains that I took.”
Essbaum eventually redeemed her own dark experience by writing this novel. “I wanted to remember those details because it wasn’t a very happy time in my life, and yet, at the same time, I didn’t want to waste those years....The most important times in our lives are probably our saddest times, or the most complicated times because that’s when we’re most vulnerable.”
Anna’s sadness especially weighed on Essbaum as she neared writing the end of the novel. “She was bound up in my prayers and thoughts and I worried about her a lot and I wanted her to be okay.” Without giving away the ending of Anna’s search for redemption, it’s poetic to know that absolution was in the air as Essbaum wrote the conclusion to Hausfrau back in 2011—between the long weekend of a Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
Bridgette Bates is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. A recipient of a Fulbright and a Boston Review “Discovery” Prize, her first book of poetry, What Is Not Missing Is Light, was released last fall.