“Anna was a good wife, mostly.” So opens Jill Alexander Essbaum’s remarkable debut novel, the mesmerizing story of Anna Benz, an American expatriate who has lived in Zurich for nine years with her husband, Bruno—a Swiss banker—and their three children.
Hausfrau begins as Anna is finally trying to break out of her cocoon of passivity—of the feeling that “she rode a bus that someone else drove.” She enrolls in a language class, and at the same time begins weekly visits with Doktor Messerli, a Jungian therapist, whom she and Bruno hope will be able to get Anna to engage more with her surroundings.
Though Anna loves her children—Victor, 8; Charles, 6; and the baby, Polly Jean—she interacts with them on a very superficial level. “Everyone’s safe. Everyone’s fed,” she tells herself. She has no friends among the neighbors or her fellow parents. In other words, she’s lonely and bored, which is dangerous according to Doktor Messerli, for “bored women act on impulse.”
Anna’s impulses lead her—like her namesake, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina—to multiple affairs, liaisons which make her feel momentarily alive. A Scottish expat in her language class and a friend of her brother-in-law provide potent, though ultimately trivial, dalliances. But she becomes obsessed with Stephen, an American professor on sabbatical, and it slowly becomes clear that their affair has had a lasting effect.
In chapters alternating between these affairs and Anna’s probing sessions with Doktor Messerli, the reader becomes sympathetic to her plight and gains a real sense of her “frantic scrambling to keep from being alone.” Essbaum brilliantly keeps up the tension as Anna bounces from one bad decision to the next, racing toward the inevitable conclusion. This completely engaging debut lingers long after the book is put down.