Book Review : Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum



‘All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Leo Tolstoy , Anna Karenina

Anna Benz is a bored housewife .An American, she is married to Bruno, a Swiss, and finds herself stranded as an ex-pat in Zurich. Following a crisis , she is undergoing Jungian analysis ( well this is Switzerland) with Dr Messerli and is finally resigned to trying to learn German. As a distraction, she has started an affair with a fellow student in her German class. So begins Essbaum’s impressive debut novel.

Gradually we learn more about Anna’s past whilst her present slowly begins to unravel.

Anna’s marriage to Bruno is loveless and held together by convention just like her namesake’s with Karenin. Bruno’s mother, Ursula, watches over her like a hawk, judging and waiting to trip her up – there are obvious echoes of Countess Ivanova in Tolstoy’s novel.

The narration is broken up by excerpts from Anna’s therapy sessions with Dr Messerli, providing a sort of moral conscience. I thought these were the least successful sections of the novel and they felt a little heavy handed at times. More interesting were Anna’s musings on German grammar rules and the way they seemed to mirror her life .

“This is basic, class. Present tense. That which happens now. Future tense. What will occur. Simple past : what was done. Present perfect? What has been done.”

But how often is the past simple? Is the present ever perfect? Anna stopped listening. These were rules she didn’t trust.’

Just like her namesake, Anna’s life begins to run away from her and she finds herself unable to control events. 

This is described on the backcover as a literary page turner and it is exactly that. Whilst Anna’s story has obvious comparisons with those of Anna Karenina and, to some extent, Emma Bovary, this is a strong work in its own right. An immensely enjoyable read.

Hausfrau was published on 26th March by Mantle and my thanks to Sam Eades for the review copy.

13 thoughts on “Book Review : Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

  1. What a surprise to see that jacket! I think I prefer it to the UK version. I agree about the sessions with the psychiatrist – Anna seems far too passive to get down to the work needed for Jungian analysis. Other than that, I thought it a very fine debut.

    • Haha ….I’m using my iPad and that was the only one I could get hold of !! I thought those sections were a bit laboured but overall like you I really enjoyed it !

  2. Love this jacket too – almost like a touch of Cath Kidston ‘perfect housewife’ symbolism 😉

    Great to see another great review for Essbaum’s debut although I disagree about the Doktor M sections – I found them interwoven in a pertinent way – even more so learning from a discussion yesterday about the perfect mask for societal expectation angle of Jungian therapy… But as you say it’s a page turner so I never laboured over these sections. I’m looking forward to rereading this one slowly and examining closely the employment of these sections & the language details… either way very clever structure

    • It’s a v clever readable book …when I thought about it for the review I realised just how clever it was . Funny but the hype can put you off books too ….

  3. This book seems to be everywhere at the moment! (I prefer this cover, too.) Several friends have been through the ex-pat experience with mixed results – I can imagine how challenging life must be for Anna.

    • I did enjoy it ….thought the AK parallels were v clever …..didn’t really get the Emma Bovary connections ….apart from the fact she is having an affair !

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