Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"Hausfrau": A Murky Look Into the Life of a Lonely, Sad Woman

I don't know where I read that "Hausfrau" by Jill Alexander Essbaum was a great book to read.  Even the book jacket says "Intimate, intense, and written with the precision of a Swiss Army knife." Hmm... not sure I'd agree with all that.  My biggest take away from "Hausfrau" is that life can be very sad and very lonely and very destructive for people who are bored  and totally disconnected with themselves.

I am embarrassed to admit that I have never read Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" and maybe if I had I would understand the references to the Swiss trains always being on time unless someone jumped on the tracks.  Maybe I would have understood Anna Benz's sulky, childish behavior and the ease with which she made horrible choices.  When I started the book, I had a hard time following the jumpy narration that vacillates between Anna's Jungian psychotherapy sessions with Doctor Messerli to Anna's German classes during which she often analyzes how the language mirrors her life to Anna's adulterous exploits with a fellow German class student (Archie) and then flashbacks to another affair she had 2 years prior with a man named Stephen who Anna apparently believed she was in love with.  The reader also gets glimpses into Anna's "real life" with her hot headed, banker husband, Bruno whose mother Ursula watches Anna's three young children while she is in Zurich sleeping around, going to German class, and lying to her therapist.

Anna's life seems comfortable enough, but she's bored and disconnected, and rather than "filling the hole" with food (as she later ponders while eating icing from a cake at her daughter's 1st birthday party), she fills it with tawdry sexual affairs.  I'm not sure how I was supposed to feel during Anna and Archie's trysts which were written in graphic detail, or how I was supposed to feel about one of Bruno's friends hitting on and then hooking up with Anna, or about Anna's flashbacks to her affair with Stephen. Mostly I felt sad and disgusted.  I know people have affairs, but Anna's ability to feel nothing - no remorse, no guilt, no emotion was the saddest part of all.

The final third of the book was the most engaging part after Anna is thrown into an unthinkable tragedy which exposes her for the liar and cheater that she is.  It sheds light on what she did have that she took for granted and maybe what she should have left behind before it spiraled out of control.  There are parts that were uncomfortable for me to read, but while I slogged through much of the narration in the first part of the book, I was compelled to read quickly at the end.

There was much to like about this book.  There are many questions about love, marriage, infidelity, lies, truth that we don't want to face, and more about the properties of fire than I ever knew.  The first line of the book is "Anna was a good wife, mostly" but by the end, I wasn't convinced about that.  Nor was I ever convinced that Bruno was a good husband.  The most redeeming character in the whole book was chattering Mary, the Canadian woman who becomes Anna's close friend and caretaker when Anna's depression impedes her from taking care of herself or her children. The conversations with Doctor Messerli brought up good questions about destiny and fate, and I especially enjoyed Anna's conversation with the priest about predestination.  "It's God who doles out the dominoes.  It is we who set them in line and tip them over.  We have no control over the particular lot we're given.  but we can choose how we arrange what we have. And we can choose to start over, when everything's been knocked down and broken."

Anna's life domino arrangement choices weren't so good, and she didn't really know how to mend the broken pieces of her life.  She ended just as sad and lonely and weepy as she began with little thought of who and what mattered in her world.

Maybe my biggest take away is to be emotionally connected to where I am and who I am. As Anna Benz's life proves, disconnecting emotionally or physically leads to more than one wrong turn.

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