Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, review by Bruce Jacobs
If, as attributed to Socrates, "the unexamined life is not worth living," then the life of Anna Benz should be rich and fulfilling. The introspective protagonist of Jill Alexander Essbaum's first novel, Hausfrau, Anna spends nearly all her days and nights reflecting on her life--her often distant banker husband, Bruno, and his family, her three children, her expatriate Zürich surroundings, her German-language classes, her Jungian psychoanalysis and her lovers. Consumed by a listless sadness, she fills sleepless nights wandering the hills behind her suburban house and empty days riding the trains and walking the streets of the city. With Bruno's encouragement, she had enrolled at a local language school and begun psychotherapy in an effort to become more engaged in her Swiss life and meet new people. And so she does. After a brief, passionate love affair with a visiting Boston scientist, she indulges in more sexually intense and transitory liaisons. She finds adultery "alarmingly easy" and tells herself that it satisfies and suits her: "Surrender is your strong suit. Assent, your forte." From a "good wife, mostly," Anna becomes an active adulterer: "Some women collected spoons. Anna collected lovers."
A poet (Necropolis; Harlot) and creative writing teacher at UC-Riverside, Essbaum jigsaws the jagged pieces of Anna's life into a gradually unfolding drama of secrets and surprises. Spanning just three months, Hausfrau tells the story of a smart woman's passions, sorrows and mistakes with the utilitarian precision of the Swiss whose "clocks are categorical... knives are well whetted... chocolate so toothsome... banks so efficient." Each scene of Anna's trysts displays a step toward her undoing. Her German classes echo her own uncertainties, like the lesson about the passive voice where she learns that "Whatever it is, you do not do it. It is done to you." Periodic analysis sessions leave Anna with more questions than answers. At one of many parties with Bruno's family, the games meant to entertain are full of meaning: "Life. Risk. Trivial Pursuit. Sorry. Even the board games pointed a finger at Anna." Throughout her narrative, Essbaum carefully describes the streets, shops, cafes and train stations of Zurich as if mapping the circuitous path of Anna's unwinding. Like a good poem, everything fits and nothing is wasted.
In Anna Benz, Essbaum has created a genuine, complex woman whose journey--no matter how dark it may be--reveals truths as only great literature can. She may have her roots in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina or Flaubert's Emma Bovary or Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, but she is a thoroughly modern and distinct character. Hausfrau is not just an exceptional first novel, it is an extraordinary novel--period.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.