Expat wives, the displaced, and anyone who has ever felt lonely will find much to appreciate in Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau
I have been an expat wife. I have quit my job, packed my bags and moved countries. It was a hard decision to make. It was also a choice – a well-thought out and executed one, and yet I struggled. With loneliness. I have walked down streets in my new home country and looked around in bewilderment. I have spent hours in the supermarket trying to figure out what will be a good substitute for my favourite breakfast. Being an expat wife is exciting and scary, equal parts of abject loneliness and exhilarating adventure.
Stories of the displaced appeal to me. So when I first heard about Hausfrau, the story of Anna – an American wife in Dietlikon, Switzerland I knew I had to read it. Anna, mother of three and a neglected wife is lonely and depressed. She doesn’t understand the local language and feels like a stranger in her new home- a very common expat syndrome. Anna has lived in Dietlikon for nine years when the book begins and her life seems to be breaking apart. She starts drifting into the beds of strangers.
Anna loved and didn’t love sex
I tried to wrap my mind around Anna, her passivity and her need to stray. As I watched her wander along the streets at nights fighting insomnia and the monsters within, I wanted to reach into the pages of the book and talk to her- scream at her and remind her to live, to celebrate life. Dokter Messerli, Anna’s therapist does just that. A modern woman needn’t be so unhappy. Their conversations are eye-opening.
You should go more places and do more things.
Anna reminds me of the kind of women who choose passivity and need to maintain relative peace at home. She prefers not to play a role in family matters. Where the wind blows, there goes Anna. Bruno, Anna’s Swiss banker husband, is not a bad guy but he neglects Anna. They are more or less in love, or a “version of love”. Anna doesn’t want to make friends and almost prefers her loneliness. She wallows in it and lets it consume her rather unhealthily.
Boredom, like the trains, carried Anna through her days.
With that line, you know that there is going to be some kind of calamity waiting in the pages. There is a sense of inevitability to the denouement. Will Anna wake up? Will she survive?
I know some readers are going to hate Anna. She is sad, boring, difficult, narcissistic. I didn’t hate her – much. I felt for her. She reminded me of a stray three-legged puppy dragging its feet along in the rain. She is a sad and broken woman in a difficult marriage. Guilt isn’t very common in Anna’s world. She makes a friend (Mary) but finds it hard to trust and let go of her loneliness. She clings to this loneliness like a child clutching to a worn-out, dirty toy.
As I read Hausfrau, the narrative stayed with me. It was cold, bitter and like shards of glass. Jill Alexander Essbaum goes for the jugular every single time, especially when she writes about sex. The story jumps quite a bit between the past and the present. Surprisingly, these shifts in the narratives don’t detract from the story. You jump and hop along, traveling with Anna. There are times when the book loses momentum (German grammar lessons were really not fun to read). But I liked how Essbaum tied them to the main story.
Hausfrau is at times laborious and a bit full of itself, but it touches you in a way very few books do. It makes you think about all the passive Annas of this world. It leaves you unsettled.
Have you read this book? What do you think of it?
Vinitha Rajan is an opinionated mom, an environmental engineer, writer, Sustainability and Climate Change Believer, dance aficionado, bibliomanic, expat wife and wanderer. You can read more of her reflections and musings here.