Hausfrau: A Novel by J EssbaumHausfrau: A Novel by J Essbaum

Hausfrau: A Novel

byJ Essbaum

Hardcover | July 6, 2016

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“A debut novel about Anna, a bored housewife who, like her Tolstoyan namesake, throws herself into a psychosexual journey of self-discovery and tragedy.”—O: The Oprah Magazine

“Sexy and insightful, this gorgeously written novel opens a window into one woman’s desperate soul.”People

Anna was a good wife, mostly. For readers of The Girl on the Train and The Woman Upstairs comes a striking debut novel of marriage, fidelity, sex, and morality, featuring a fascinating heroine who struggles to live a life with meaning.

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.

Praise for Hausfrau

“Elegant . . . There is much to admire in Essbaum’s intricately constructed, meticulously composed novel, including its virtuosic intercutting of past and present.”Chicago Tribune

“For a first novelist, Essbaum is extraordinary because she is a poet. Her language is meticulous and resonant and daring.”—NPR’s Weekend Edition

“We’re in literary territory as familiar as Anna’s name, but Essbaum makes it fresh with sharp prose and psychological insight.”San Francisco Chronicle

“This marvelously quiet book is psychologically complex and deeply intimate. . . . One of the smartest novels in recent memory.”The Dallas Morning News

“Essbaum’s poignant, shocking debut novel rivets.”Us Weekly

“A powerful, lyrical novel . . . Hausfrau boasts taut pacing and melodrama, but also a fully realized heroine as love-hateable as Emma Bovary.”The Huffington Post

“Imagine Tom Perrotta’s American nowheresvilles swapped out for a tidy Zürich suburb, sprinkled liberally with sharp riffs on Swiss-German grammar and European hypocrisy.”New York
Jill Alexander Essbaum is the author of several collections of poetry and her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, as well as its sister anthology, The Best American Erotic Poems, 1800-Present. She is the winner of the Bakeless Poetry Prize and recipient of two NEA literature fellowships. A member of the core faculty at the U...
Title:Hausfrau: A NovelFormat:HardcoverProduct dimensions:336 pages, 8.55 × 5.98 × 1.08 inShipping dimensions:8.55 × 5.98 × 1.08 inPublished:July 6, 2016Language:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0812997530

ISBN - 13:9780812997538


Rated 2 out of 5 by from meh wasn't too disappointing because i got the book for $3 and it had pieces of a good book but they didnt all add up.
Date published: 2017-11-22
Rated 2 out of 5 by from This time you can judge a book by its cover Naturally, the jacket has its chosen blurbs which naturally exclude the non-favourable opinions. However in the inside jacket there is a brief synopsis. That is the entire story nothing added worse than a harlequin
Date published: 2017-11-10
Rated 1 out of 5 by from did not enjoy this I found this book a struggle to get through. I didn't understand the ending, i wont ruin it for anyone but I felt that there wasn't much of a story line and the ending was not impactful.
Date published: 2017-11-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Dark and real. I have mixed feelings about this book. Some parts bored me but mostly the story felt so real and disturbingly dark. Overall, I'm glad I read it,
Date published: 2017-10-28
Rated 2 out of 5 by from It is just ok. I bought this book thinking it was going to be great. Not my cup of tea. I do like the cover picture.
Date published: 2017-10-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Worth it I bought this book because of the cover and the price. I was pleasantly surprised by the story. It was a bit slow but I would read it again.
Date published: 2017-09-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting The beautiful cover and interesting synopsis drew me in, but this book was not what I was expecting. I really liked it, surprisingly. The main character, Anna was a complex individual with the characteristics of some of Shakespeare's tragedies. The struggle for a better more extraordinary life is something that anyone can relate to at some level. I found this book thought provoking and unpredictable.
Date published: 2017-06-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Sad Story A very good story that taps into the recesses of the mind of a housewife who strives to find fulfillment and happiness. We feel her struggle to connect with others: her husband, mother-in-law, her lovers, her children, etc. In the end, did she have the happiness she longed for but didn't recognize it?
Date published: 2017-05-23
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Long, slow read I brought this book when it was rated a top read last year, started it then but did not finish it due to being in school. I needed a leisure book to read again and recalled not finishing this one so had to finish it for that sake and it was really just that, it wasn't compelling at all and a super slow read. While the character was interesting, she was intriguing. There were so many moments I forgot what the storyline was even about and the ending was terrible.
Date published: 2017-05-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Captivating and realistic Really loved this book! The characters, the plotline, the dialogue were interesting as well as was written in a soft and interesting point of view. Highly recommend!
Date published: 2017-04-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from sad sad book but some women do face these issues. i found it to be very interesting
Date published: 2017-03-23
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Whoa. While I didn't enjoy reading this book, I felt compelled to finish it. The ending (although really awful) stuck with me and made it redeemable. Recommended for when you need a dose of yuck.
Date published: 2017-03-16
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Book club book I was torn with enjoying the novel and disliking, perhaps the author quest. . I enjoyed concept of the ex-pat life of not really ever fitting into another country, the main characters reality was grim and a few storylines didn't quite mesh with me. A good discussion book
Date published: 2017-02-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Tragic but Great This book is not a happy story with a happy ending. it is a realistic look at misery. Intriguing and well written.
Date published: 2017-02-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting Story Would recommend anyone read this who is interested in sophisticated storytelling and nuanced female characters.
Date published: 2017-01-26
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Would NOT recommend. This was not enjoyable at all. The ending (if you can call it that) made me think there should have been a few more pages and the printer neglected to print them...
Date published: 2017-01-21
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Boring... Dont waste your time... was sure the last page was missing- such a bad ending...
Date published: 2017-01-03
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing I was really looking forward to this book but found it disappointing. The characters were very one-dimensional and I felt the story overall lacked depth. Anna's depressing narrative was flat, full of self-pity and selfishness rather than true, deep sadness. That being said, there were some truly heart-wrenching moments that were very well written but they didn't make up for everything else. The ending was awful. I actively tell my book-reading friends to avoid this book.
Date published: 2017-01-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Solid page-turner I bought this book for $5 a few days ago, and could hardly put it down. Definitely worth the bargain price. I lived in Zurich for a few years, and I thought that the description of the land and culture was very accurate, especially from a North American perspective. The story moved fast, and it was a good choice for a holiday read, even though it was a little depressive. Would recommend.
Date published: 2016-12-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Pretty Good. I did like this book however I found it very hard to feel bad for Anna. There were moments where I wanted to give up reading it but something made me keep going. There was a few things that I did not expect to happen and it was very sad, it was those moments where I felt bad for Anna but hated her as well. She is not perfect nor is her husband Bruno, overall I did like this book but it wasn't fantastic, I think that the hype was a little much. I would give it a 3.5 if I could.
Date published: 2016-01-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Haunting novel The story is very haunting, although I am sure, very relatable to many. I found it quite depressing and even fiction writing has the tendency to bring out strong emotions in myself, I thought it was a bit of a downer. If you can read without getting too emotionally involved with the characters, I would highly recommend it!
Date published: 2015-09-28
Rated 1 out of 5 by from An awful book I regret buying I'm convinced that people who called this book a masterpiece have no sense of literary anything. This book is full of lazy writing, lazy character development, lazy plot. Important moments seem glossed over and the writing is full of cliches. I have not read a book where I have rolled my eyes so often at the lazy writing and poor cliches. The characters are also one dimensional and unrealistic. This is a mediocre book at best. At least the cover is pretty, so there's that.
Date published: 2015-08-12
Rated 1 out of 5 by from "Hausfrau" Comparison with "The Girl On The Train ? Kiss of death !
Date published: 2015-06-30
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Poor Anna Karenina The book was well written and having said that the ending ruined it for me. It was not that I expected something different, I just would have liked something not the same as Anna Karenina. I agree though a bored and sad woman is a dangerous thing to herself especially.
Date published: 2015-06-15
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Heart breaking Anna is a housewife, an American who married a Swiss man. Together they have three lovely children. Anna's days are spent wandering the streets of her town and having affairs with various men. Told in dual past and present views, we see one woman's journey into a marriage that will make or break her. My new goal this year was to read more adult and this one just sounded like an interesting read. I'm not one for reading a literary book, but this one proved to be more heart wrenching than anything else. I wish I was warned as to how dark this was going to be.. I was not prepared for the things that Anna goes through. Anna is one complex character. We see bits and pieces of her being slowly discovered. Her mental health is definitely unstable and the more I read, the more depressed I became. What I didn't understand really was the reasoning behind everything because she never took responsibility for any of her actions. Such terrible things she would do, I was astounded. I could understand, but at the same time I couldn't agree with her. This was one character you aren't able to relate to, but at the same time you felt every emotion she was experiencing. The writing is excellent and shows a lot of prose, but it felt more like it was telling instead of showing a story. And the story was too predictable for me. At one point, I wanted to just stop reading, but I pushed on anyway and kept going. Closer to the end, things start to happen and I can't say I was too happy with it. I loved the setting because Switzerland sounds like a wonderful place to live. I liked reading about the places she would go and even learning some of the German words sprinkled throughout the book. Read this for its beautiful prose, but I would like to warn you that this is a darker read and it won't be for everyone. I felt a lot of sadness throughout the entire read and I needed a happier book to read next.
Date published: 2015-06-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from EXCELLENT WRITING Anna Benz, ex-pat American, married to a Swiss banker and living in Switzerland for 9 years has managed to have three children and run her household but not bothered to learn German or even “Switzer-Deutsch”. She gets through her days by keeping to herself. She is depressed, bored and lonely. Much to the relief of her husband and mother-in-law she agrees to two things: one – she will start therapy, two – she will take German lessons. As Anna attends German class her German vocabulary increases and during her visits with Doktor Messerli she (and the reader) learn more about Anna, the woman. One thing the reader is privy to but Anna refuses to share with her therapist (or anyone else) is the fact that while she has no close friends, Anna has affairs. Lots of them. Hausfrau is Anna’s story and she has no problem justifying the affairs to herself and tries her best to convince the reader as well. Ms. Essbaum’s word play in this book was impressive. I enjoyed how she would take a small snippet of a German lesson or a doctor’s appointment and weave it into the telling of the next part of Anna’s story. Kudos to Ms. Essbaum for her creativity as it never ceased to impress me as I was reading. Anna’s psychoanalyst sessions force Anna, and by turn, the reader into thinking about the themes running through the book … marriage, fidelity, secrets, family, self respect and love. There were so many parts of this book that had me nodding my head thinking, “Good job Jill, very well done!” The writing was clever and smart. In all honesty I picked up this book on a whim based on the title. I guess it appealed to my German side. If you speak German you know that “hausfrau” most commonly refers to a woman who probably does not hold a job outside the house and spends her time looking after home, hearth and family. However depending on the inflection one gives the word it can also be a genuine (or back-handed) compliment or, a snide derogatory judgment. In the case of this book is seems to be a combination of all of those. According to Doktor Messerli “A bored woman is a dangerous woman.” The idea of an unhappily married, bored woman embarking on an affair is not a new concept by any means. Classics such as The Scarlet Letter, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary through to contemporary fiction such as All The Things That Never Happened and The Girl On The Train all have adultery as one of the main threads carrying the story. Paraphrasing Dr. Messerli (again, because she really is quite wise) “A mistake made once is an oversight. A mistake made twice is a choice but a mistake made a third time is a decision”. In the end Anna learns that decisions also have consequences. As I read the book I found that I did not care for or sympathize with Anna much, however I did find her intriguing. I found myself so drawn into her rationalizations and dramas that there were tingly moments of intense anticipation and tension on my part as a reader. That certainly kept me turning the pages. While on some level highly predictable I was still surprised by the conclusion to Anna’s story. That sounds a little oxymoronic … predictable surprise … yet that was the case. I hope to meet Anna again in another book sometime down the road because I’m curious to know how things work out.
Date published: 2015-05-30
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Mediocre I found this book was very hard to follow at some points and didn't capture my attention the way I expected. The plot, although detailed and twisted, I felt that deep and important moments were not given as much detail as I wanted. A lot was left unanswered in my mind and I felt unsatisfied. Perhaps this storyline would've made a better short story. I found myself thinking that parts dragged on.
Date published: 2015-05-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Title is why I chose to read it I enjoyed the book, felt it was realistic when he Son died. I believe moving to a place where you don't speak the language could be very depressing, although I hated the ending. I am a strong Women and hoped she would have made better choices.
Date published: 2015-04-04
Rated 3 out of 5 by from 2.5 Stars This book was actually kind of depressing to read. It had a depressing tone to it throughout. And while I am all for reading emotional, heart-wrenching stories, I'm not a fan of just straight-up depressing stories. I didn't find the story to be very interesting. I'm not even sure what the point of it was. I mean, really, not much happened throughout the story. I expected what came at the end, so that was no surprise to me. This book was a struggle to get through and I considered putting it down a couple times. While it was written well, it failed to captivate me. I was pretty bored throughout the book. But it really was written well. If this author can come up with a more interesting and captivating storyline, her books would be great to read.
Date published: 2015-03-18
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Quite Decent It is a "quite decent" book. Anna, the cheating wife - not a spoiler - is a surprisingly likeable character. Whose story is told in two, sometimes three, sometimes four timelines which the author skillfully walks you through. Anna's Swiss environment is suitably, boringly, oppressive. Punctuated by her adventures into both German grammar and sex. All this being said, the story isn't new. A character's life gets out of control, there are regrets, and it all starts to look a little downhill. So an admirably executed but still classic literary trope.
Date published: 2015-01-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Modern Anna Karenina My God. Maybe the most emotionally draining book I've ever read. The indecencies and indiscretions were sometimes too difficult to digest; literally, as I had to put the book down, intentionally, on two occasions. It leaves me with so many thoughts but at a loss for words at the same time.
Date published: 2015-01-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Anna, hausfrau and modern-day tragic heroine "Why it is you hate. Who it is you love. How to heal. How to sit with sadness. How to grieve. How to live. How to die." This is something Doktor Messerli tells Anna Benz, and this is "Hausfrau" in a nutshell. This novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum is truly an insightful character study of quite the complicated woman, a modern-day tragic heroine of sorts. Anna is passive, conflicted, naive, rash, and yielding; her thoughts and feelings are sexually-charged, from a brooding sadness or from plain boredom (or both); she is profoundly simple yet simplistically thoughtful; she could and should be leading a happier, successful life, but her tendencies make her a pessimist. It's in these see-sawing of emotions that make Anna relatable yet unlikeable, contemptible but sympathetic. Essbaum writes with the lyrical prose you would expect from a poet. She plays on words and meanings, both English and German, which threads through the story as Anna is enrolled in a class to pick up the language, to illustrate a point and to broach a topic or a perspective. She employs the Swiss backdrop of an idyllic lifestyle to contrast it against the inner turmoil that Anna flounders with. She flips back and forth between different times of Anna's expatriate life in a concise manner that structurally flows, and accentuates them with the psychoanalysis of Doktor Messerli on Anna in their sessions, which tie the past, the present, and the future together. Essbaum has crafted a thought-provoking novel with a situational setting that is considerably alien in the most inviting and inclusive way. "Hausfrau" will be a great pick for book clubs because of the abundance in material readers will find much to talk about and pick apart - marriage, adultery, love and sex, secrets, self identity, new experiences in new surroundings, learning what's right from wrong and making things wrong to right, decisions and outcomes. Ultimately at the end of the day, one lives with the consequences one's choices lead to. Anna learns that, and you will be left with burning questions about her choices.
Date published: 2015-01-19

Read from the Book

1Anna was a good wife, mostly.It was mid-­afternoon, and the train she rode first wrenched then eased around a bend in the track before it pulled into Bahnhof Dietlikon at thirty-­four past the hour, as ever. It’s not just an adage, it’s an absolute fact: Swiss trains run on time. The S8 originated in Pfäffikon, a small town thirty kilometers away. From Pfäffikon, its route sliced upward along the shores of the Zürichsee, through Horgen on the lake’s west bank, through Thalwil, through Kilchberg. Tiny towns in which tiny lives were led. From Pfäffikon, the train made sixteen stops before it reached Dietlikon, the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led. Thus the ordinary fact of a train schedule modulated Anna’s daily plans. Dietlikon’s bus didn’t run into the city. Taxicabs were expensive and impractical. And while the Benz family owned a car, Anna didn’t drive. She did not have a license.So her world was tightly circumscribed by the comings and goings of locomotives, by the willingness of Bruno, Anna’s husband, or Ursula, Bruno’s mother, to drive her places unreachable by bus, and by the engine of her own legs and what distance they could carry her, which was rarely as far as she’d have liked to go.But Swiss trains really do run on time and Anna managed with minimal hassle. And she liked riding the trains; she found a lulling comfort in the way they rocked side to side as they moved forward.Edith Hammer, another expatriate, once told Anna that there was only one reason the Swiss trains ever ran late.“When someone jumps in front of one.”Frau Doktor Messerli asked Anna if she had ever considered or attempted suicide. “Yes,” Anna admitted to the first question. And to the second, “Define ‘attempt.’ ”Doktor Messerli was blond, small-­bodied, and of an ambiguous but late middle age. She saw clients in an office on Tritt­ligasse, a cobbled, lightly trafficked street just west of Zürich’s art museum. She’d studied medical psychiatry in America but had received her analytic training at the Jung Institute in Küsnacht, a Zürich municipality not less than seven kilometers away. Swiss by birth, Doktor Messerli nonetheless spoke an impeccable, if heavily accented, English. Her w’s masqueraded as v’s and her vowels were as open and elongated as parabolic arches: Vhat dooo yooo sink, Anna? she’d often ask (usually when Anna was least likely to give an honest answer).There was a television commercial that promoted a well-­known language school. In the ad, a novice naval radio operator is shown to his post by his commanding officer. Seconds into his watch the receiver pings. “Mayday! Mayday!” a markedly American voice grates through the speaker. “Can you hear us? We are sinking! We are sinking!” The operator pauses then leans toward his transmitter and replies, quite graciously, “Dis is dee Germ-­ahn Coast Guard.” And then: “Vhat are yooo sinking about?”Anna would invariably shrug a sluggard’s shrug and speak the only words that seemed worth speaking. “I don’t know.”Except, of course, Anna most always did.It was a drizzly afternoon. Swiss weather is mutable, though rarely extreme in Kanton Zürich, and typically not in September. It was September, for Anna’s sons had already returned to school. From the station Anna walked slowly the culpable half kilometer up Dietlikon’s center street, lingering over shop windows, biding small bits of time. All postcoital euphorics had evaporated, and she was left with the reins of ennui, slack in her hand. This wasn’t a feeling she was new to. It was often like this, a languor that dragged and jaded. The optometrist’s on-­sale eyeglass display dulled her. She yawned at the Apotheke’s pyramid of homeopathic remedies. The bin of discount dishtowels by the SPAR bored her nearly beyond repair.Boredom, like the trains, carried Anna through her days.Is that true? Anna thought. That can’t be entirely true. It wasn’t. An hour earlier Anna lay naked, wet and open atop a stranger’s bed in an apartment in Zürich’s Niederdorf district, four stories above the old town’s wending alleys and mortared stone streets upon which kiosks vended doner kebabs and bistros served communal pots of melted Emmental.What little shame I had before is gone, she thought.“Is there a difference between shame and guilt?” Anna asked.“Shame is psychic extortion,” Doktor Messerli answered. “Shame lies. Shame a woman and she will believe she is fundamentally wrong, organically delinquent. The only confidence she will have will be in her failures. You will never convince her otherwise.”It was almost 3:00 p.m. when Anna reached her sons’ school. Primarschule Dorf was positioned next to the town square between the library and a three-­hundred-­year-­old house. A month earlier on the Swiss national holiday, the square was thick with citizens eating sausages and swaying like drunkards to the live music of a folk band under a sky made bright with fireworks. During army maneuvers, soldiers parked supply trucks in sloppy diagonals next to the square’s central fountain, which on summer days would be filled with splashing, naked children whose mothers sat on nearby benches reading books and eating yogurt. Bruno had finished his reserve duty years earlier. All that was left of the experience was an assault rifle in the basement. As for Anna, she didn’t care for paperbacks and when her sons wanted to swim she took them to the city pool.That day, the traffic in the square was thin. A trio of women chatted in front of the library. One pushed a stroller, another held a leash at the end of which panted a German shepherd, and a final one simply stood with empty hands. They were mothers waiting on their children and they were younger than Anna by a factor of ten years. They were milky and buoyant in places where Anna felt curdled and sunken. They wore upon their faces, Anna thought, a luminous ease of being, a relaxed comportment, a native glow.Anna rarely felt at ease inside her skin. I am tight-­faced and thirty-­seven years, Anna thought. I am the sum of all my twitches. One mother tossed her a wave and a genuine, if obligatory, smile.She’d met this stranger in her German class. But Anna—­his cock’s been in your mouth, she reminded herself. He’s not really a stranger anymore. And he wasn’t. He was Archie Sutherland, Scotsman, expatriate, and, like Anna, language student. Anna Benz, Language Student. It was Doktor Messerli who had encouraged her to take the German course (and, by a backspin of redoubtable irony, it was Bruno who’d insisted she see a psychotherapist: I’ve had enough of your fucking misery, Anna. Go fix yourself, is what he’d said to her). Doktor Messerli then handed Anna a schedule of classes and said, “It’s time you steer yourself into a trajectory that will force you into participating more fully with the world around you.” The Doktor’s affected speech, while condescending, was correct. It was time. It was past time.By the end of that appointment and with some more pointed cajoling, Anna conceded and agreed to enroll in a beginner’s German class at the Migros Klubschule, the very class she should have taken when, nine years prior, she arrived in Switzerland, tongue-­tied, friendless, and already despairing of her lot.An hour earlier Archie had called to Anna from his kitchen: Would she take a coffee? A tea? Something to eat? Was there anything she needed? Anything? Anything at all? Anna dressed cautiously, as if thorns had been sewn into the seams of her clothes.From the street below, she heard the rising cries of children returning to school post-­lunch and the voices of American sightseers who grumped about the pitch of the hill atop which Zürich’s Grossmünster was built. The cathedral is a heavy building, medieval gray and inimitable, with two symmetric towers that rise flush against the church’s façade and jut high above its vaulted roof like hare’s ears at attention.Or cuckold’s horns.“What’s the difference between a need and a want?”“A want is desirable, though not essential. A need is something without which you cannot survive.” The Doktor added, “If you cannot live without something, you won’t.”Anything at all? Like Doktor Messerli, Archie spoke a magnificently accented English intoned not by the shape-­shifting consonants of High Alemannic, but by words that both roiled and wrenched open. Here an undulant r, there a queue of vowels rammed into one another like a smithy’s bellows pressed hotly closed. Anna drew herself to men who spoke with accents. It was the lilt of Bruno’s nonnative English that she let slide its thumb, its tongue into the waistband of her panties on their very first date (that, and the Williamsbirnen Schnaps, the pear tinctured eau-­de-­vie they drank themselves stupid with). In her youth Anna dreamed soft, damp dreams of the men she imagined she would one day love, men who would one day love her. She gave them proper names but indistinct, foreign faces: Michel, the French sculptor with long, clay-­caked fingers; Dmitri, the verger of an Orthodox church whose skin smelled of camphor, of rockrose, of sandalwood resin and myrrh; Guillermo, her lover with matador hands. They were phantom men, girlhood ideations. But she mounted an entire international army of them.It was the Swiss one she married.If you cannot live without something, you won’t.Despite Doktor Messerli’s suggestion that she enroll in these classes, Anna did know an elementary level of German. She got around. But hers was a German remarkable only in how badly it was cultivated and by the herculean effort she had to summon in order to speak it. For nine years, though, she’d managed with rudimentary competence. Anna had purchased stamps from the woman at the post office, consulted in semi-­specifics with pediatricians and pharmacists, described the haircuts she desired to stylists, haggled prices at flea markets, made brief chitchat with neighbors, and indulged a pair of affable though persistent Zeugen Jehovas who, each month, arrived on her doorstep with a German-­language copy of The Watchtower. Anna had also, though with less frequency, given directions to strangers, adapted recipes from cooking programs, taken notes when the chimney sweep detailed structural hazards of loose mortar joints and blocked flues, and extracted herself from citations when, upon the conductor’s request, she could not produce her rail pass for validation.

Bookclub Guide

1. That Anna. So—really—what’s her deal? Her thoughts loop on a script of immutable passivity, but is that her whole story? From the onset we know she is a flawed protagonist, a damaged character, a woman who is “nothing but a series of poor choices executed poorly.” Taking into account Anna’s personal history, her psychic and spiritual makeup, and those aforementioned poor choices, is there any part of this tragedy that somehow isn’t her fault? What should she be held accountable for? Of what, if anything, are you willing to absolve her?2. Bruno proposes to Anna with the words “I think you would make a good wife for me.” What, in your opinion, would make him think that? They’ve been together for over a decade. By book’s end it’s clear that Bruno has either known about or suspected Anna’s infidelities the entire time. Why would he tolerate them? Why would he tolerate her? Is this a sign of his weakness or his strength? What does he “get” out of this marriage?3. Mary, in her decency, stands in direct opposition to the self-centered narcissism of the majority of Anna’s actions. Simply put, Mary seems to be everything that Anna should be but isn’t. But the book suggests that Mary’s two-shoes aren’t altogether goody, so to speak. In three separate instances, she “spills” herself in front of Anna: when she drops her purse and blurts out a more-Anna-than-Mary expletive, when she drops her purse and the erotic novel (and the wistful truth that she regrets not exploring her sexuality) tumbles out, and, finally, when she admits to the bullying and setting the fire. In these ways, Mary has more in common with Anna than Anna is open to recognizing. Do you think Mary can see past Anna’s façade? Do you think she understands Anna on a fundamental level? If not, then do you think she would ever be able to? What do you think will happen to Mary after the book ends?4. Anna’s lack of morality is almost shocking. What do you think is her gravest mistake? Is there any point during the course of the narrative where she could have stopped the progression of events?5. Anna rarely tells Doktor Messerli the whole truth. Why, then, do you think she continues the analysis?6. Anna has never learned to speak German, and yet she exhibits an unmistakable talent for language: she plays with words, turns puns, thinks in entendre—though rarely does she speak these things aloud. Is it shyness that prevents her from showing this side of herself? Fear? What would it look like if Anna could tap into her “voice”? What would it change?7. Of all the children, Charles is the most dear to Anna. Victor is too much like Bruno for Anna to fully trust. But as the sole memento of the relationship with Stephen, one might assume that Polly Jean would hold the spot closest to Anna’s heart. Discuss Anna’s relationship with her children. She won’t win mother of the year in anyone’s contest—but is there any way in which she can be commended? Is there anything she does as a mother that is correct? Good? Nurturing?8. Anna confesses she majored in home economics in college. Couple this with the perfect memory of sewing with her mother, and the seed of Anna’s present psychology begins to form. As her station as a wife and a mother starts to fail her (or rather, she, them), we are able to understand that somewhere in Anna’s fundamental self she was raised to be these things. Why does she cling to this fantasy if it doesn’t seem to suit her?9. At the end of chapter 6, Anna thinks, “I wish I’d never met the man.” Which man do you suppose she means?10. Doktor Messerli warns Anna that “consciousness doesn’t come with an automatic ethic,” and Anna’s choices seem to bear this out. Taking into consideration Doktor Messerli’s explanation of the Shadow, her story of the Teufelsbrücke, and the final events of the book, is it possible to argue that, ethics aside, Anna has come into complete consciousness?11. Archie says to Anna that a man can smell a woman’s sadness. In the same vein, Anna talks herself through the morning after the physical confrontation with Bruno with a “You had this coming” speech to herself (“I provoked this. . . . I brought this to myself. . .”). By this reasoning, Anna is an active participant in her own downfall. But Anna claims to be almost entirely passive. Do you consider Anna to be more passive or more active? How does this complicate your understanding of Anna’s psychology?12. In terms of the structure of the novel, the analytic sessions with Doktor Messerli serve to explicate, illuminate, underscore, and complicate the plot of the book and any conclusion that Anna believes she’s arrived at. Are there any places in the book where this is particularly meaningful to you?13. There’s an intriguing symmetry to the way that the grammar of the German language—the tenses, moods, conjugations, false cognates, infinitives, et cetera—lays itself out in a pattern that easily overlays the poignant heartbreak of the novel. And yet, one of the themes of Hausfrau is language’s ultimate inadequacy. Is that tension resolvable? If so, how? Is this something you have encountered in your own life? 14. The book depends upon the coolness of the Swiss, the impenetrable nature of the landscape, and the solitude of nighttime in order to fully call forth Anna’s deep despair and alienation. Could this book take place in another setting? Anna’s everyday environs—the hill, the bench, the trains, the Coop—become characters in their own right Are there other functions the novel’s setting serves?15. Hausfrau is in some sense a study in female sexuality. What might the author be suggesting about the sexual appetites of a woman at midlife? What might the author be suggesting about a woman’s emotional needs?16. An entirely speculative question: What do you think will happen to Bruno and Victor and Polly Jean? Can you imagine their lives post-Anna?

Editorial Reviews

“In Hausfrau, Anna Karenina goes Fifty Shades with a side of Madame Bovary.”—Time   “A debut novel about Anna, a bored housewife who, like her Tolstoyan namesake, throws herself into a psychosexual journey of self-discovery and tragedy.”—O: The Oprah Magazine“Sexy and insightful, this gorgeously written novel opens a window into one woman’s desperate soul.”—People“Elegant . . . There is much to admire in [Jill Alexander] Essbaum’s intricately constructed, meticulously composed novel, including its virtuosic intercutting of past and present.”—Chicago Tribune  “For a first novelist, Essbaum is extraordinary because she is a poet. Her language is meticulous and resonant and daring.”—NPR’s Weekend Edition   “In Jill Alexander Essbaum’s promising novel, we meet Anna Benz, an increasingly desperate American housewife and mother of three in her late thirties, positively brimming with ennui. . . . We’re in literary territory as familiar as Anna’s name, but Essbaum makes it fresh with sharp prose and psychological insight.”—San Francisco Chronicle“This marvelously quiet book is psychologically complex and deeply intimate—as sexy as it is sad. . . . Though Anna, as heroine, has literary precedent, Essbaum has gracefully combined the mundane of the familial, graphic sex scenes, linguistics lessons and precise passages of psychological expertise into something utterly original. Essbaum has written one of the smartest novels in recent memory.”—The Dallas Morning News“Jill Alexander Essbaum’s poignant, shocking debut novel rivets.”—Us Weekly“A powerful, lyrical novel . . . Hausfrau boasts taut pacing and melodrama, but also a fully realized heroine as love-hateable as Emma Bovary and a poet’s fascination with language. . . . The beauty of Hausfrau, however, is the freshness it brings to a trope seemingly beaten into the ground. . . . In Anna, we don’t see a sinfully passionate naif throwing her life away on a doomed quest for love, à la Bovary or Karenina. Such a parallel hardly seems possible in these liberal modern times when divorce is common and premarital sex expected. But the numbed, uncertain person at the heart of Hausfrau is uniquely compelling.”—The Huffington Post   “[Essbaum’s] first foray into fiction has already drawn references to Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. . . . But the self-alienation of the American wife of a Swiss banker, resulting in Jungian analysis and reckless serial adultery, feels more contemporary, subjective, and just plain funny than classical bourgeois ennui. Imagine Tom Perrotta’s American nowheresvilles swapped out for a tidy Zürich suburb, sprinkled liberally with sharp riffs on Swiss-German grammar and European hypocrisy.”—New York   “Hausfrau, a psychological trip about ‘a good wife, mostly’ who enters into a series of messy affairs and impulsive adventures, is brain-surgically constructed to fascinate you, entertain you, and then make you question what a life lived with meaning looks like—all with a sense of poetic discipline and introspection.”—Los Angeles Magazine“Over a century after the publication of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, poet Essbaum proves in her debut novel that there is still plenty of psychic territory to cover in the story of ‘a good wife, mostly.’ . . . The realism of Anna’s dilemmas and the precise construction of the novel are marvels of the form. . . . This novel is masterly as it moves toward its own inescapable ending, and Anna is likely to provoke strong feelings in readers well after the final page.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review) “[Anna’s] story will fascinate and thrill the most modern readers, even if you don’t agree with her decisions.”—Bustle“Hausfrau packs romance, sex, and infidelity into the story about a woman searching for meaning in her life.”—PopSugar “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.”—Shelf Awareness “[Essbaum’s protagonist] shares more than her name with that classic adulteress, Anna Karenina, but Essbaum has given a deft, modern facelift to the timeless story of a troubled marriage and tragic love in this seductive first novel.”—Booklist“With an elegance, precision, and surehandedness that recalls Marguerite Duras’s The Lover and Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, Jill Alexander Essbaum gives us this exquisite tale of an expatriate American wife living in Switzerland and her sexual and psychic unraveling. Hausfrau stuns with its confidence and severe beauty, its cascading insights into the nature of secrets, the urgency of compulsion and the difficulty of freedom. This is a rare and remarkable debut.”—Janet Fitch, #1 New York Times bestselling author of White Oleander  “I was mesmerized by this book. Hausfrau creates a complete, engrossing, and particular world where nothing is as easy as it should be, according to the hopeful stories we tell ourselves. It’s a corrective novel, taking character, destiny, and our choices as seriously as a novelist can.”—Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be? “I loved this brilliant, insightful, and devastating novel about Anna: trains . . . adultery . . . the punctual, rigid Swiss . . . Jungian analysis . . . anhedonia . . . more adultery and more trains . . . and Jill Alexander Essbaum’s beautiful sentences strewn with sharp thorns that prick and cut straight into the heart of a woman’s unfulfilled life. I wish I had written it.”—Lily Tuck, National Book Award–winning author of The News from Paraguay“A stunningly written, hauntingly paced book. Anna Benz has the weight of a classic heroine—isolated yet crowded—but she is utterly modern in Jill Alexander Essbaum’s hands. ReadingHausfrau is like staring at a painting that simultaneously seduces and disturbs. Even when you want to turn away, you find your feet are planted to the floor.”—Sloane Crosley, author of I Was Told There’d Be Cake “Hot damn, is Hausfrau a beautiful, heart-wrenching novel. It casts a spell that doesn’t stop working until that wonderful final line. Jill Alexander Essbaum has a seismic talent, and it shows on every page of her first novel. Just read this bad boy. Like right now.”—Victor LaValle, author of The Devil in Silver “This debut brilliantly chronicles a woman’s life falling apart.”—The Times (U.K.)“Uncompromising . . . [a] seductive debut.”—The Guardian (U.K.)   “Riveting and shocking.”—Marie Claire (U.K.)  “The book that will have everyone talking.”—Cosmopolitan (U.K.)   “This slow-burning literary novel of marital disintegration will leave you in bits. It’s a bleak, but beautiful read, with echoes of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.”—Glamour (U.K.) “This book is sheer sex and madness, written in one of the most amazing voices I’ve ever read.”—Bookriot  “Hausfrau is authentic in its depiction of a strikingly passive woman whose betrayals overwhelm her. There are distinct echoes of Anna Karenina. But it is the wordcraft, structure and restrained intimacy of this first novel that make it a standout.”—BBC   “[An] insightful and shocking portrait of a woman on the edge.”—Woman & Home (U.K.)“With more than a passing resemblance to Anna Karenina . . . [Hausfrau will] be a book club winner.”—Stylist (U.K.)“The ghost of Anna Karenina haunts the poet Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut, Hausfrau, about an American in Zürich with the perfect husband, perfect sons and perfect home; but she is far from the perfect wife.”—Harper’s Bazaar (U.K.)