Book review of Essbaum’s Hausfrau: NOT a modern Anna Karenina story

A couple of weeks ago I found two books at my local library using one of my common techniques for choosing books—browsing randomly. These books were in a corner of the library set aside for a summer reading club. This summer’s theme is “Walk on the Wild Side.” Two books piqued my curiosity and I checked them out.

HausfrauDarkCrop

I first read Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau. The back cover blurbs suggested that the novel could be compared to a modern Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina. High praise, indeed, and all the blurbs gushed about Essbaum’s masterful writing.

As I started reading, I wasn’t disappointed. Hausfrau is the story of an expatriate American wife, Anna, living in Switzerland with her Swiss husband Bruno and their three young children. Anna is not happy; after nine years in Switzerland she still feels herself to be an outsider and has no close friends. She is bored, without personal ambition or direction, and feels distant from her husband. At first I found her story compelling, mainly because it includes a lot of well-written sex scenes. Anna starts an affair with a fellow student in her German class. Only weeks later she gets drawn into another affair, this time with a family friend.

But Hausfrau is not a steamy romance or an erotic novel—it is neither of these. Essbaum is asking serious questions about how a woman creates her identity and becomes fulfilled. What roles can marriage and extramarital sex play in that process? What is love? Why does Anna feel so isolated? Why is she so troubled by the question of what comes after death? She has regular psychotherapy sessions with a Doktor Messerli, and their conversations make up many scenes in the book. Yet the psychotherapist seems unable to draw Anna into a state of greater self-awareness, or penetrate her depression.

Hausfrau engaged me completely and in that way it is a successful novel. It made me think not only about the questions above, but about how my reactions to the book changed as I continued reading it. I’m fascinated by the fact that different readers analyze and respond to the same book in different ways. For example, the jacket cover calls Anna an “electrifying heroine,” and a blurb on the back compares her story to the nineteenth-century heroines of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. I, instead, found myself puzzled and frustrated by Essbaum’s Anna. In my view she was unbelievably passive, and strangely indifferent towards her husband, lovers, and friends.

What I didn’t understand about Anna is that she has tremendous sexual energy, but seems unable to transfer any energy or joyfulness to other areas of her life. The sex scenes are powerful and erotic—yet the overriding message seems to be that sex is, for Anna, her only form of escapism and self-affirmation. At one point Doktor Messerli asks Anna what she is good at. Anna thinks, but doesn’t say, that the only thing she is good at is fucking.

She feels no emotion for her sexual partners; in fact she knows little about them and has no interest in getting to know more. Also, there seems to be no adequate explanation of what has gone wrong with Anna’s marriage to Bruno. Why are they so distant? There is one scene in the book where they have wild, rough sex after a party, and it’s clear that Anna still finds him very attractive, physically. Yes, they have their cultural differences, but Anna knew that going into the marriage.

Why do Bruno and Anna seem to have no interest in strengthening their marriage? There is one scene where Anna’s pseudo-friend Edith (a thoroughly unlikeable character) says she doesn’t have a clue what her husband does at work; Anna admits that she knows nothing about Bruno’s work, either. Anna says, “We should care enough about our husbands to know what they do.”

Edith replies, “The only thing we need to know is this: they bring home a paycheck.” So Anna, passive though she is, feels more compunction than Edith; Anna at least recognizes that this level of disinterest about one’s life partner is callous and strange.

One clue about Anna’s distance from Bruno is a backstory about an affair she had with a man named Stephen a couple of years before the present-day events of the novel. Of all the men mentioned from Anna’s life, Stephen was, apparently, the one she loved passionately. In fact, we learn that Anna’s third child is actually Stephen’s daughter, not Bruno’s, but Anna has never told anyone this. Stephen left Anna for a job in the States. He never wanted Anna to be a permanent partner. She wasn’t realistic about what she meant to him.

Yet Anna doesn’t tell Doktor Messerli about Stephen.

As I progressed through the book, I continued to be drawn in by Anna’s predicament but I was increasingly frustrated by her apathy. To me, comparisons with the heroines of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary are not apt. Tolstoy’s Anna is passionately in love with Vronsky. She is the victim of the rules and conventions of her time. By choosing to live with Vronsky, she not only becomes an outcast from Russian society, but her petty bureaucrat of a husband bans her from seeing her beloved son. For Anna Karenina, every choice leads to heartbreak.

Emma Bovary is more similar to Anna in Hausfrau, in that both are unhappy and bored by their social environment. Both Emma’s and Anna’s first lovers (Rudolf and Stephen) don’t love them. But Emma is trapped in ways that the contemporary Anna need not be. Modern women aren’t severely limited in their choices the way women were in the nineteenth century. Emma’s provincial town has nothing to offer her in terms of personal development or stimulation. Also, Emma doesn’t love her husband or even feel any physical attraction to him.

Eventually Anna’s affairs can no longer be hidden, and can no longer shield her from some awful real-life events. Her son Charles dies in a freak accident. After that, Bruno finds out he’s not the father of their third child. He beats Anna up and then tells her she has to leave their home for a while so no one sees the marks he’s put on her. Now Anna has genuine causes for grief and desperation. Yet I still found her actions in the last part of the book inexplicable. How could she be so unhinged as to leave her purse and suitcase on the train? Why does she throw her cellphone—her last link to getting help—into the water? Is Essbaum implying that the only way out for Anna is suicide, as it was for Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary?

After reading most of Hausfrau eagerly, the ending left me dissatisfied and depressed. What was Essbaum’s purpose in writing it? In the end, the book seemed to convey messages only about failure: Anna’s failure to develop herself; her failure to find intimacy with others, including her husband, her lovers, or her friends; and the failure of the people surrounding her, including Doktor Messerli, to help her.

Despite the fact that Hausfrau disturbed me, the fact that it left me asking questions and postulating answers speaks to its success in engaging me. The novel seems real and honest, in part because it doesn’t shy away from exposing people’s darkest, weakest thoughts and actions.

It left me wondering how other people will react to Hausfrau and its “heroine.” How will they interpret the book’s conclusion? To me it gives a warning about the dangers of being passive—going with “the flow” of accidents and others’ choices without adequate self-awareness and reflection. Perhaps Anna should not have married Bruno. Perhaps she shouldn’t have had children. Perhaps she should have terminated her affair with Stephen early on, by admitting to herself that he didn’t love her the way she loved him.

***

When I was almost finished reading Hausfrau, I came across a quote from Maria Popova’s Brainpickings website. She quoted the prolific writer Robert Penn Warren (best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning All the King’s Men) on the subject of “finding oneself” through taking time off from work or school to do extensive travelling. Warren’s words were:

. . . the self is never to be found, but must be created, not the happy accident of passivity, but the product of a thousand actions, large and small, conscious or unconscious, performed not “away from it all” but in the face of “it all,” for better or for worse, in work and leisure rather than in free time.*

Anna doesn’t make choices about her own work, productive leisure activities, or friendships. She only accepts, passively, the choices that others impose upon her. She never “finds” herself. Instead, she loses everything by leaving her suitcase on the train and willfully discarding her cellphone. It seems the only choice Anna is capable of making is that of self-destruction.

* From Democracy and Poetry (Harvard University Press, 1975)

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How I choose books to read

Reading is just another activity that has been hugely changed by computers and other entertainment technology.

I’m writing this post for those of you who still read books—or have the ambition to read them. I don’t believe people will ever stop reading books. Nor will print books die out. Visual and interactive media are compelling forms of communication that have enriched our lives and our ways of telling stories. Yet I have faith that the combined power of well-crafted words and readers’ imaginations will ensure the enduring popularity of simple printed books.

Technology has affected not only the formats of what we read, but how we choose our books and other reading materials. In this post, I’d like to share how I choose my books.

Cover of How Literature Changed My Life by David Shields

Andre Alexis’ review of this book gave me an “I can’t wait to read this!” reaction.

1) I read book reviews, mainly from the weekend edition of The Globe and Mail. I thoroughly enjoy reading the book reviews in the Arts section of The Globe. I don’t buy many books. Since reviewed books are typically new, I enter their names and authors on my computer’s “books to read” list. I read them when they arrive at the library, or I ask for them for Christmas gifts. Often the reviews themselves are extremely thought-provoking and well-written. Occasionally, I’m so galvanized by a book review that I’ll buy the book immediately. For example, Globe critic André Alexis’ take on How Literature Changed my Life, by David Shields, was a fascinating read on its own. I tried to get the book at my local Chapters but they hadn’t yet received it.

Cover of Astray by Emma Donoghue

After reading Emma Donoghue’s “Room”, I was eager to read anything else by this astoundingly good writer. I found “Astray” in the 7-day loan section. I had to fight with the librarian to let me take it out, because it was severely water-damaged.

2) I browse at my local library. I do two types of browsing. The first is simply scanning the “new” and “express” books sections. If I see a book that I want (after using method #1 above), I check it out.

The second type of library browsing requires more time, but it’s (to me at least) very pleasurable and almost a lost art these days. That is browsing randomly amongst the shelves of books, taking out books that I’m attracted to because of their titles, or because I recognize a familiar author’s name, or because I start reading the summary or the blurbs and get ensnared. This kind of browsing goes on until my time runs out, or until I have a stack of at least three or four books. Then I leave the library feeling like a rich person. I’m filled with anticipation about the pages soon to be devoured.

The great advantage of this kind of “random browsing” is its unpredictability. You never know what unfamiliar or obscure books you will discover. These may be books that haven’t been mentioned in any mainstream media. They may be books that are old and wouldn’t be available in any bookstore now. They come with not only an older style of language, but with different smells and page textures than newer books. Maybe they have comments penciled into their margins by a reader long dead now.

A randomly-chosen book could get you to open your mind to a subject you’ve never been exposed to or curious about before. And who knows where that could lead?

3) I browse at Chapters. There is something enticing about being surrounded by attractive new books. I like browsing at Chapters (but see my pet peeve*). However, I try to resist the urge to buy every book I’d like to read. Browsing in a bookstore is similar to browsing in a library in that you can do the “easy” browsing in the front areas where the heavily marketed books are, or you can browse in the stacks where you might find older “treasures”. One of the differences, of course, is that you won’t find any truly old books in Chapters.I haven’t included second-hand bookstores as an inspiration for my book choices, but that’s simply because I don’t have such a store anywhere near where I live.

*Pet peeve: It’s especially irritating to shop at Chapters before Christmas. I find that my browsing is so frequently interrupted by “assistants” that I don’t even have time to read a book cover or a blurb to get an idea what a book is about. If I needed help I would ask one of the 100 or so floor-drones for it.

Cover of Le Ton beau de Marot

“Le Ton beau de Marot” includes 88 wildly diverse translations of a 16th-century French poem—but so much more!

Random browsing in Chapters has led me to numerous treasures. I want to rave about two examples here: both are astounding acts of creativity. They demonstrate how a writer can focus on a topic or person that he is obsessed with, and follow that obsession to the absolute limits of genius. When I read these books, I experience the privilege and excitement of being drawn into worlds I never knew existed.

In Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, Douglas R. Hofstadter starts with the goal of translating a short medieval French poem and expands it into a 570-page book that is bursting with the joy, exuberance, and music the author finds in language. Your appreciation of the book will be greater if you have some understanding of French (as I do at an intermediate level), but even without that you will be dazzled by Hofstadter’s insights about the creative art of translation. Starting with the anagram “translation = lost in an art”, this book is a challenging intellectual journey; surprising, delightful, and hugely rewarding. Anything I could write in praise of this book would be inadequate.

Cover of Ha!

Gordon Sheppard’s “Ha!” is a tribute to Quebec separatist writer Hubert Aquin. Its creation took 25 years.

A second “treasure” that I found by accident at Chapters was a strange, unconventional book whose cover blurbs intrigued me irresistibly: Ha! A Self-Murder Mystery, by Gordon Sheppard. Sheppard, a well-known Canadian writer, artist and filmmaker in the ’70s, spent 25 years creating this almost-900-page book that Quill & Quire reviewer Nicholas Dinka calls a “genre-busting beast.” (Read Dinka’s review of Ha! here.) Ha! is an investigation into the 1977 suicide of Sheppard’s friend Hubert Aquin, a Quebec separatist writer. The book is presented entirely as a series of interviews with many of Aquin’s friends and acquaintances, plus quotations from Flaubert, Joyce, and Dante, and images from artistic geniuses like da Vinci and Goya. According to Dinka, Sheppard’s purpose is not only to understand the life, death and work of Hubert Aquin, but to ask difficult questions about the “potentially destructive struggle” of every artist’s life.

4) I follow suggestions from friends whose opinions I respect, whether I’m talking to them in person or just see one of their comments online.

5) My curiosity about a book is re-awakened after seeing the movie version. Usually I’ve read the book before I see the movie. The movie often compels me to go back and read the book. I’m fascinated by the creative process that screenwriters and directors go through as they make decisions about how to transform a book into a movie. This must be especially difficult when a very long book (like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina) has to be reduced to a two-hour film.

Cover of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina

The recent movie version with its theatrical effects did justice to Tolstoy’s great novel, but had to omit much of the parallel love story of Lenin and Kitty.

What I almost never do

I know it’s easy to let your computer choose your books for you. A site like Amazon.com recommends books for you based on data it’s aggregated about your browsing, purchasing, and reading habits. Writer and publisher David Gaughram’s states in his recent blog post that Amazon is considered to be the best of these book e-commerce sites. The reason, he says, is that Amazon shows you the book you are most likely to buy, without taking price or the author’s history/reputation into account. For this reason, self-publishers fare better on Amazon, according to Gaughran.

Why don’t I like letting Amazon choose my books for me? Because it doesn’t allow for that random, unpredictable discovery of books I would never plan to read. Also, there’s an irrational part of me that is revolted by the idea that a computer can understand my intellect and how I want to feed it. (Even though I’m not denying that Amazon’s choices would probably satisfy me very well.)

How do you choose books to read?

Have I left out anything important?

Does anyone have a book to rave about?