Somewhere between the original publication of the hardcover version of Hausfrau and its paperback release, marketers decided to capitalize on the main character’s numerous extramarital affairs. In case the book jacket didn’t let you know that there would be Sexy Times in the novel, the blurb on the front references Fifty Shades of Grey. But let me be clear, this is not a sizzling beach book AT ALL. This is the story of a very depressed, disconnected woman spiraling downward into despair.
The book jacket also compares Hausfrau to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. I can see how it's a modern mash-up of both of those classic novels (trains and adultery!). The housewife in question is Anna. She lives in Zurich with her unpleasant Swiss husband and three young children. Her isolation is almost complete. She doesn’t speak the language. She doesn’t have good friends. She doesn’t have a job. What she does have is a hunger for fulfillment, which she seeks in vain through numerous lovers, and a profound ability to spin a web of lies that adds to her distance from others.
I did not enjoy this book for a single minute. BUT I did find it truly thought-provoking. The story asks the reader to think about the ways women sacrifice for family life. Anna sacrifices her country and her language. She sacrifices her ambition. You get the sense that she is sacrificing her ability to love other people. But this isn’t the nineteenth century, and the reader also gets to consider how much Anna is causing her own pain. Is she a victim of social convention or the architect of her own destiny?
The poetic writing is also worth noting, particularly the interludes where Anna is in German language class. The author connects Anna’s struggles to the framework of language itself (the role of the passive verb, for instance, or the significance of the future perfect tense). This meta discussion, along with Anna’s conversations with her analyst and with a priest, present the larger philosophical questions the author wants to explore.
In these respects, Hausfrau would be a good book club book. There are plenty of issues to tackle – women and sexuality, autonomy, parenting, honesty in friendships, being “true to yourself,” feminism. I can’t imagine that anyone would come away unmoved. But this book is a tragedy from beginning to end, and I think it will leave many readers sour (or, at the very least, sobbing on a bench in the middle of the night along with the main character).
You can find a good interview with the author, Jill Alexander Essbaum, here.
As a side note, I decided to type “depressing books” into google, and this is what I found: