Review: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum


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For readers of Claire Messud and Mary Gaitskill comes a striking debut novel of marriage, fidelity, sex, and morality, featuring a fascinating heroine who struggles to live a life with meaning.

haus·frau \haus-frau\ n 1: Origin: German.
Housewife, homemaker. 2: A married woman. 3: A novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Anna was a good wife, mostly.

Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband, Bruno—a banker—and their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno or even with her own thoughts and feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters with an ease that surprises even her.

But Anna can’t easily extract herself from these affairs. When she wants to end them, she finds it’s difficult. Tensions escalate, and her lies start to spin out of control. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there is no going back.

Intimate, intense, and written with the precision of a Swiss Army knife, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut novel is an unforgettable story of marriage, fidelity, sex, morality, and most especially self. Navigating the lines between lust and love, guilt and shame, excuses and reasons, Anna Benz is an electrifying heroine whose passions and choices readers will debate with recognition and fury. Her story reveals, with honesty and great beauty, how we create ourselves and how we lose ourselves and the sometimes disastrous choices we make to find ourselves.


Literary works about marriages and infidelity are pretty much the most boring books that you can possibly read. You have to bring something different or unique to the tired plot if you are going to write an adultery book that is worth reading. Hausfrau is just different enough for it to be interesting. Most of this is from the writing and from the character of Anna. 

The writing is very powerful in places, one of those books where you want to bring a pen and underline sentences and paragraphs. There are thoughts that are written in a very quotable manner. Like I could see memes floating around Instagram that says, “An obsession is a defense against feeling out of control. A compulsion is the failure of that defense.” or “There’s always a correspondence between one’s dreams and one’s wounds.” There are also interesting patterns that Jill Alexander Essbaum uses to tell this story. Like there are short breaks where she describes German vocabulary and grammar. These pieces have a metaphorical meaning but more it is a pause in the action that is going on, one that is needed at some points, to give us a second to process the things that happened before. There also seems to be patterns with the way certain lovers come up, like most of the time she is travelling when she is thinking about her history with Stephen and the language breaks are a large part of telling her time with Archie. The correlations between lovers and events is very well established, and an interesting way to tell the story. 

Anna is an expat from America who is living with her husband and children in Switzerland. She does belong, does not know the language, does not have many friends. There is so much existential dread and depression in her that she is trying to fulfill her life with something that can help her cope with not feeling like she belongs. Her choice is the comfort of other men, which is a pretty easy way to deal with the loneliness and sadness of feeling like you do not belong in the life you have created. The story, like all infidelity stories, is a cautionary tale and we know from the beginning that it is not going to end well. 

If this was not a well written and quotable as it is, Hausfrau would be just another boring marriage book, but Jill Alexander Essbaum writes the story in such a way that it is well worth the time and effort to consume it all, write down some of the quotable sentences and ideas, and mull over them.

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