Thursday, July 8, 2021

Book 292: Hausfrau

"The five most frequently used German verbs are all irregular. Their conjugations don’t follow a pattern: To have. To have to. To want. To go. To be. Possession. Obligation. Yearning. Flight. Existence. Concepts all. And irregular. These verbs are the culmination of insufficiency. Life is loss. Frequent, usual loss. Loss doesn’t follow a pattern either. You survive it only by memorizing how."
Dates read: January 28- February 1, 2019
Rating: 5/10
I know this probably makes me sound like a raging egotist, but when two people in my vicinity are communicating in a language I don't understand, I find myself thinking that they're talking about me. I realize that they're almost certainly not. I'm not that interesting. But when you can't comprehend it, it's so easy to assume the worst. This is something I try to work on when I find myself thinking like this, because it's not fair to either me or other people.

In Jill Alexander Essbaum's Haufrau, American Anna Benz has been living in Zurich with her Swiss husband, Bruno, for nearly a decade. He's a banker, so he brings in enough income that she doesn't need to work outside the home, and they have three adorable children, two sons and a baby daughter. But despite her long-time residence in Switzerland, Anna speaks only basic German and virtually none of the Swiss German dialect that most people around her use to talk to each other. She's finally decided to take lessons, and it's here she meets Archie, with whom she begins a torrid affair. And it's not the first time she's done something like this.

In fact, Anna seems hardly able to resist a man who wants to sleep with her, as we quickly find out that her daughter was not fathered by her husband. Unlike the joyless, compulsive sex she has with other men, her relationship with her daughter's father was one where she had genuine feelings for her lover. Over the course of the therapy sessions Anna engages in over the course of the book, she reflects back on her upbringing, her marriage, her motherhood, and the profound emptiness she seems to feel at her core. When Anna makes a mistake and the delicate balance she has made of her life seems about to topple, it's only a matter of time before she finds herself at a tragic precipice.

Obviously, an unfaithful wife is rich literary territory, and the name of her heroine is just the beginning of Essbaum's allusions to perhaps the most famous of fictional cheaters: Anna Karenina. Indeed, although the book is relatively short, I found myself frequently wondering what new territory exactly was trying to be explored here. There's so little that's subtle: the fragments of therapy sessions we get are right on the nose, as are the flashes we get of Anna's language classes. The conclusion seems inevitable within the first few pages, so it's not plot tension that drives the narrative forward. And Anna herself, though perhaps meant to be a reflection of the despair that could come from lifelong untreated depression (which seems most likely to be at the root of Anna's disconnect from her own feelings), is just unpleasant to spend time with.

That's not to say there isn't anything worthwhile here. Essbaum's prose is witty and clever, and enjoyable to read. And her choice to make Anna so profoundly flawed, particularly as a wife and mother, the roles which we put a tremendous amount of pressure on women to perform highly in, makes her an unusual heroine. Male characters are allowed to shirk their responsibilities to their partners and children and still be redeemable. It was challenging to think about how much of the antipathy I felt for Anna was wrapped up in the expectations I brought to the table about the kind of female character I root for or get invested in. But at the end of the day, even recognizing that bias, Anna's joylessness was just exhausting. This book got a lot of buzz when it came out, but fell very flat for me. I enjoyed it so little that I can't recommend it. 
One year ago, I was reading: The Residue Years
Two years ago, I was reading: Washington Black

Three years ago, I was reading: The Looming Tower
Four years ago, I was reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Five years ago, I was reading: Under the Tuscan Sun

No comments:

Post a Comment