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‘Hausfrau’ is about a wife who can’t help flying too close to the flame

Hausfrau

By Jill Alexander Essbaum

Random House

324 pages,$26

By Margaret Sullivan

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

In real life, a new study reports that the people who live in Switzerland are the happiest in the world.

In fiction, this decidedly was not the case for Anna Benz, who is the focus of a memorable debut novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum.

No, Anna Benz is miserable – an American transplanted by her Swiss banker husband to his hometown in suburban Zurich, where she is raising three young children and otherwise staying at home in resentful isolation. Well, not always – because Anna’s misery finds its relief in a series of extramarital sexual encounters that, slowly but inexorably, threaten to wreck her family and her life.

It sounds, and is, grim. But “Hausfrau” is also compulsively readable, undeniably moving, and beautifully written. The first line will hook you – “Anna was a good wife, mostly” – and the last line will haunt you. (To repeat it here would be a spoiler.)

The novel has made a splash since its March release, although reviews have been mixed.  Maybe it has received such attention because some reviewers describe it as an unholy cross between classics like “Anna Karenina” or “Madame Bovary” and “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

It’s true that there’s plenty of description of Anna’s sexual escapades and proclivities. (“Anna had never been mad about foreplay.  She was not one of those women who needed to endure complicated half hours of rubbing and prodding and explosive plyometrics before her body tensed and the dam holding back her pleasure burst.”) But I don’t buy the comparison; it seems glib. Will every novel with a sexually active heroine get this label now, I wonder.

At any rate, the sex scenes, arresting as they are, are not what stayed with me.  Rather, it’s that Essbaum takes us inside the head of this troubled and not always appealing woman; we come to understand her, feel her psychological pain, and know in our bones that her situation is not going in a good direction. And we know, too, that nothing can stop it.

At its best, the novel can be called literary – not a classic, maybe, but its story is somehow timeless and universal.

At its worst, it is self-conscious, trying a little too hard with its references and allusions. To wit: In one scene, Anna goes with a lover – the partner of her first infidelity and the love of her unhappy life – to James Joyce’s grave in Zurich. The lover’s name is Stephen, which recalls Stephen Dedalus, the Joyce protagonist and alter ego; and like Daedalus’ son Icarus in Greek myth, Anna flies too close to the sun. Driving it home, Stephen’s profession is as a pyrologist; he studies fire. The novel uses fire as a regularly and consciously applied metaphor, beginning with an opening quote from Joan Crawford: “Love is a fire. But whether it is going to warm your hearth or burn down your house, you can never tell.”

All of this is both effective and a little heavy-handed; a little of it goes a long way, and there isn’t just a little.

Nevertheless, such truths, and more elusive ones, are explored throughout in conversations between Anna and her Jungian analyst. “Is there a difference between destiny and fate?” Anna was jumpy, more unsettled than usual. Doktor Messerli asked if she understood the concept of synchronicity.  “Not really.”

These snippets of probing questions and opaque answers from the reluctant, probably doomed, analysand are some of the novel’s strongest points, as is its sense of place.  We feel the precision, the pristine beauty, and the chill of life in Switzerland – right down to the trains that run on time, except when they don’t, which, as explained early on, happens only when someone commits suicide on the tracks.

Read “Hausfrau” for its language, its insight, its characterizations. Just don’t read it looking for happiness.

Margaret Sullivan is the former editor of The News and the current public editor of the New York Times.