Jill Alexander Essbaum * Random House * March 17, 2015 * 324 Pages
It was hard for me to know what to make of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel, Hausfrau, at first. This book is oppressively melancholy. I mean, just absolutely unbearably sullen. And, what’s more, it goes on forever. It honestly has no business being as long as it is–ambling along like a dawdling toddler. There were more than a few points when I wanted to scream at Essbaum, “Can we just hurry this up a little bit, please?”
And yet–and yet!–I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down. I basically neglected my children for two straight days while I finished it. Not proud, but it’s the truth. It wasn’t that I liked Anna. Honestly, she is fairly annoying most of the time: sullen, withdrawn, passive, and pessimistic. She continually takes on a helplessness she doesn’t have to. She is defeated before she even puts up a fight–and not for lack of insight, awareness, or ability. The woman is actually quite intelligent and clever. No, she most definitely could have made a better life for herself, but she is faithfully, determinedly married to her sadness.
But still, I loved Anna. I loved her because I understood her. I am also a hausfrau, married for nine years and with three young children. I know all too well the appeal of passivity, how easy it can be to let all of the obligations take over and fill your time. You lose control, you lose yourself, and somehow you end up taking the path of least resistance. You know it isn’t the “right” path, the healthy path. You aren’t happy taking it, but after the babies and the moves and the job searches and the cooking and the upkeep and the doctor’s visits and the school forms and the bills and the hours—the hours!—you spend caring for, entertaining, cleaning, comforting, refereeing, it can feel good, like a relief, to not fight, to let it all happen for you. Instead of struggling to make your own destiny, instead of fighting to carve out a piece for yourself, you give up. And then you draw close the disappointment, the melancholy and hopelessness you feel; you wrap it around you like a warm blanket, and you let yourself disappear. You exist, but you don’t exist.
I’m certainly not the only one to relate to a character like Anna. The whole “bored and dissatisfied housewife” angle is hardly a unique one. Of course this book forces the reader to recall Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary and Edna Pontellier. As I drew near to the end of the novel, I thought, “Oh no, are we really going to end all this glorious writing with such a tired, tired cliche? Please don’t, Essbaum!” But thankfully, (SPOILER ALERT) she doesn’t.
The story’s ending may not have been everything I wanted, but it was still strangely, surprisingly hopeful. As someone who feels herself occasionally trapped by this “I exist, but I don’t exist” entanglement, I absolutely loved that Essbaum didn’t force Anna to take one long final plunge in that river of despondency. Anna may not have blossomed into a blinding ray of sunshine, but she was able to rally—and I think, most importantly, she was finally able to be honest with herself, about herself, and acknowledge everything.
She had nothing left to worry about. What autonomy. It settled her. She stood at the center point of her own spiral and it was a fixed position.
Anna finally steps out of her passive role and becomes a participant in her own life. I began to have hope for her—and, if I can just be totally honest, it helped me have a bit more hope for myself. Why be anything but your most authentic self? Who are you protecting? What are you hiding from? Live your truth, or die choking on it.
So, yes, I loved this book. It wasn’t perfect; there were flaws. But it resonated with me in such a personal way. And while this does make me worry that I might be treading into cliche “despondent housewife” territory myself, I still appreciate that Essbaum was able to capture one woman’s complicated state of existence so beautifully.