“A debut novel about Anna, a bored housewife who, like her Tolstoyan namesake, throws herself into a psychosexual journey of self-discovery and tragedy.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“Sexy and insightful, this gorgeously written novel opens a window into one woman’s desperate soul.”—People
Anna was a good wife, mostly. For readers of The Girl on the Train and The Woman Upstairs comes a striking debut novel of marriage, fidelity, sex, and morality, featuring a fascinating heroine who struggles to live a life with meaning.
Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband, Bruno—a banker—and their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno or even with her own thoughts and feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters with an ease that surprises even her.
But Anna can’t easily extract herself from these affairs. When she wants to end them, she finds it’s difficult. Tensions escalate, and her lies start to spin out of control. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there is no going back.
Intimate, intense, and written with the precision of a Swiss Army knife, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut novel is an unforgettable story of marriage, fidelity, sex, morality, and most especially self. Navigating the lines between lust and love, guilt and shame, excuses and reasons, Anna Benz is an electrifying heroine whose passions and choices readers will debate with recognition and fury. Her story reveals, with honesty and great beauty, how we create ourselves and how we lose ourselves and the sometimes disastrous choices we make to find ourselves.
Praise for Hausfrau
“Elegant . . . There is much to admire in Essbaum’s intricately constructed, meticulously composed novel, including its virtuosic intercutting of past and present.”—Chicago Tribune
“For a first novelist, Essbaum is extraordinary because she is a poet. Her language is meticulous and resonant and daring.”—NPR’s Weekend Edition
“We’re in literary territory as familiar as Anna’s name, but Essbaum makes it fresh with sharp prose and psychological insight.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“This marvelously quiet book is psychologically complex and deeply intimate. . . . One of the smartest novels in recent memory.”—The Dallas Morning News
“Essbaum’s poignant, shocking debut novel rivets.”—Us Weekly
“A powerful, lyrical novel . . . Hausfrau boasts taut pacing and melodrama, but also a fully realized heroine as love-hateable as Emma Bovary.”—The Huffington Post
“Imagine Tom Perrotta’s American nowheresvilles swapped out for a tidy Zürich suburb, sprinkled liberally with sharp riffs on Swiss-German grammar and European hypocrisy.”—New York
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Anna was a good wife, mostly.
It was mid-afternoon, and the train she rode first wrenched then eased around a bend in the track before it pulled into Bahnhof Dietlikon at thirty-four past the hour, as ever. It’s not just an adage, it’s an absolute fact: Swiss trains run on time. The S8 originated in Pfäffikon, a small town thirty kilometers away. From Pfäffikon, its route sliced upward along the shores of the Zürichsee, through Horgen on the lake’s west bank, through Thalwil, through Kilchberg. Tiny towns in which tiny lives were led. From Pfäffikon, the train made sixteen stops before it reached Dietlikon, the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led. Thus the ordinary fact of a train schedule modulated Anna’s daily plans. Dietlikon’s bus didn’t run into the city. Taxicabs were expensive and impractical. And while the Benz family owned a car, Anna didn’t drive. She did not have a license.
So her world was tightly circumscribed by the comings and goings of locomotives, by the willingness of Bruno, Anna’s husband, or Ursula, Bruno’s mother, to drive her places unreachable by bus, and by the engine of her own legs and what distance they could carry her, which was rarely as far as she’d have liked to go.
But Swiss trains really do run on time and Anna managed with minimal hassle. And she liked riding the trains; she found a lulling comfort in the way they rocked side to side as they moved forward.
Edith Hammer, another expatriate, once told Anna that there was only one reason the Swiss trains ever ran late.
“When someone jumps in front of one.”
Frau Doktor Messerli asked Anna if she had ever considered or attempted suicide. “Yes,” Anna admitted to the first question. And to the second, “Define ‘attempt.’ ”
Doktor Messerli was blond, small-bodied, and of an ambiguous but late middle age. She saw clients in an office on Trittligasse, a cobbled, lightly trafficked street just west of Zürich’s art museum. She’d studied medical psychiatry in America but had received her analytic training at the Jung Institute in Küsnacht, a Zürich municipality not less than seven kilometers away. Swiss by birth, Doktor Messerli nonetheless spoke an impeccable, if heavily accented, English. Her w’s masqueraded as v’s and her vowels were as open and elongated as parabolic arches: Vhat dooo yooo sink, Anna? she’d often ask (usually when Anna was least likely to give an honest answer).
There was a television commercial that promoted a well-known language school. In the ad, a novice naval radio operator is shown to his post by his commanding officer. Seconds into his watch the receiver pings. “Mayday! Mayday!” a markedly American voice grates through the speaker. “Can you hear us? We are sinking! We are sinking!” The operator pauses then leans toward his transmitter and replies, quite graciously, “Dis is dee Germ-ahn Coast Guard.” And then: “Vhat are yooo sinking about?”
Anna would invariably shrug a sluggard’s shrug and speak the only words that seemed worth speaking. “I don’t know.”
Except, of course, Anna most always did.
It was a drizzly afternoon. Swiss weather is mutable, though rarely extreme in Kanton Zürich, and typically not in September. It was September, for Anna’s sons had already returned to school. From the station Anna walked slowly the culpable half kilometer up Dietlikon’s center street, lingering over shop windows, biding small bits of time. All postcoital euphorics had evaporated, and she was left with the reins of ennui, slack in her hand. This wasn’t a feeling she was new to. It was often like this, a languor that dragged and jaded. The optometrist’s on-sale eyeglass display dulled her. She yawned at the Apotheke’s pyramid of homeopathic remedies. The bin of discount dishtowels by the SPAR bored her nearly beyond repair.
Boredom, like the trains, carried Anna through her days.
Is that true? Anna thought. That can’t be entirely true. It wasn’t. An hour earlier Anna lay naked, wet and open atop a stranger’s bed in an apartment in Zürich’s Niederdorf district, four stories above the old town’s wending alleys and mortared stone streets upon which kiosks vended doner kebabs and bistros served communal pots of melted Emmental.
What little shame I had before is gone, she thought.
“Is there a difference between shame and guilt?” Anna asked.
“Shame is psychic extortion,” Doktor Messerli answered. “Shame lies. Shame a woman and she will believe she is fundamentally wrong, organically delinquent. The only confidence she will have will be in her failures. You will never convince her otherwise.”
It was almost 3:00 p.m. when Anna reached her sons’ school. Primarschule Dorf was positioned next to the town square between the library and a three-hundred-year-old house. A month earlier on the Swiss national holiday, the square was thick with citizens eating sausages and swaying like drunkards to the live music of a folk band under a sky made bright with fireworks. During army maneuvers, soldiers parked supply trucks in sloppy diagonals next to the square’s central fountain, which on summer days would be filled with splashing, naked children whose mothers sat on nearby benches reading books and eating yogurt. Bruno had finished his reserve duty years earlier. All that was left of the experience was an assault rifle in the basement. As for Anna, she didn’t care for paperbacks and when her sons wanted to swim she took them to the city pool.
That day, the traffic in the square was thin. A trio of women chatted in front of the library. One pushed a stroller, another held a leash at the end of which panted a German shepherd, and a final one simply stood with empty hands. They were mothers waiting on their children and they were younger than Anna by a factor of ten years. They were milky and buoyant in places where Anna felt curdled and sunken. They wore upon their faces, Anna thought, a luminous ease of being, a relaxed comportment, a native glow.
Anna rarely felt at ease inside her skin. I am tight-faced and thirty-seven years, Anna thought. I am the sum of all my twitches. One mother tossed her a wave and a genuine, if obligatory, smile.
She’d met this stranger in her German class. But Anna—his cock’s been in your mouth, she reminded herself. He’s not really a stranger anymore. And he wasn’t. He was Archie Sutherland, Scotsman, expatriate, and, like Anna, language student. Anna Benz, Language Student. It was Doktor Messerli who had encouraged her to take the German course (and, by a backspin of redoubtable irony, it was Bruno who’d insisted she see a psychotherapist: I’ve had enough of your fucking misery, Anna. Go fix yourself, is what he’d said to her). Doktor Messerli then handed Anna a schedule of classes and said, “It’s time you steer yourself into a trajectory that will force you into participating more fully with the world around you.” The Doktor’s affected speech, while condescending, was correct. It was time. It was past time.
By the end of that appointment and with some more pointed cajoling, Anna conceded and agreed to enroll in a beginner’s German class at the Migros Klubschule, the very class she should have taken when, nine years prior, she arrived in Switzerland, tongue-tied, friendless, and already despairing of her lot.
An hour earlier Archie had called to Anna from his kitchen: Would she take a coffee? A tea? Something to eat? Was there anything she needed? Anything? Anything at all? Anna dressed cautiously, as if thorns had been sewn into the seams of her clothes.
From the street below, she heard the rising cries of children returning to school post-lunch and the voices of American sightseers who grumped about the pitch of the hill atop which Zürich’s Grossmünster was built. The cathedral is a heavy building, medieval gray and inimitable, with two symmetric towers that rise flush against the church’s façade and jut high above its vaulted roof like hare’s ears at attention.
Or cuckold’s horns.
“What’s the difference between a need and a want?”
“A want is desirable, though not essential. A need is something without which you cannot survive.” The Doktor added, “If you cannot live without something, you won’t.”
Anything at all? Like Doktor Messerli, Archie spoke a magnificently accented English intoned not by the shape-shifting consonants of High Alemannic, but by words that both roiled and wrenched open. Here an undulant r, there a queue of vowels rammed into one another like a smithy’s bellows pressed hotly closed. Anna drew herself to men who spoke with accents. It was the lilt of Bruno’s nonnative English that she let slide its thumb, its tongue into the waistband of her panties on their very first date (that, and the Williamsbirnen Schnaps, the pear tinctured eau-de-vie they drank themselves stupid with). In her youth Anna dreamed soft, damp dreams of the men she imagined she would one day love, men who would one day love her. She gave them proper names but indistinct, foreign faces: Michel, the French sculptor with long, clay-caked fingers; Dmitri, the verger of an Orthodox church whose skin smelled of camphor, of rockrose, of sandalwood resin and myrrh; Guillermo, her lover with matador hands. They were phantom men, girlhood ideations. But she mounted an entire international army of them.
It was the Swiss one she married.
If you cannot live without something, you won’t.
Despite Doktor Messerli’s suggestion that she enroll in these classes, Anna did know an elementary level of German. She got around. But hers was a German remarkable only in how badly it was cultivated and by the herculean effort she had to summon in order to speak it. For nine years, though, she’d managed with rudimentary competence. Anna had purchased stamps from the woman at the post office, consulted in semi-specifics with pediatricians and pharmacists, described the haircuts she desired to stylists, haggled prices at flea markets, made brief chitchat with neighbors, and indulged a pair of affable though persistent Zeugen Jehovas who, each month, arrived on her doorstep with a German-language copy of The Watchtower. Anna had also, though with less frequency, given directions to strangers, adapted recipes from cooking programs, taken notes when the chimney sweep detailed structural hazards of loose mortar joints and blocked flues, and extracted herself from citations when, upon the conductor’s request, she could not produce her rail pass for validation.
Reading Group Guide
A Conversation Between
Jill Alexander Essbaum and Gina Frangello
Gina Frangello is the author of four works of fiction, including Every Kind of Wanting and A Life in Men. She co--founded and served as the executive editor for many years at Other Voices Books, and has also been the fiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown and the Sunday editor of The Rumpus.
Gina Frangello: I’ve known you for many years, and I published the first excerpt of Hausfrau on The Nervous Breakdown when you were first working on it and unsure you’d even finish it. You’ve been successful as a poet—-you’ve had two NEA fellowships—-so let’s back up to what made you want to write a novel to begin with. Is it something you’ve always had a secret hankering to do? Have you experimented with fiction in the past but abandoned it, and this time stuck to it? What was the watershed moment that made you start writing in a different form?
Jill Alexander Essbaum: Oh, as a kid I had those fantasies of being a famous novelist. And I wrote stories. And they were awful and they were wonderful in the way that a baby--beginning writer’s stories are both awful and wonderful at once. And I went to college and studied writing (French too—-because I also thought I might like to move to Paris at some point and take up with a yet--to--be--determined lover who would probably be named Michel and would almost assuredly be a sculptor because of course he would be). I took some poetry workshops and it turned out that I enjoyed writing poems—-and I was good at the “game” of poetry. I’m using “game” as a shorthand for things like maximizing the economy of language in a piece, working with rhyme and meter—-working against rhyme and meter, puns and wordplay, the whole shebang. And so that’s what I wrote for a long time. I here--and--thered essays for journals for a while, but it took returning from a few years living abroad before I thought seriously about writing in a different form. Chiefly because when I returned from Switzerland, the things I wanted to write, the descriptions and the memories and the sites and the sightings, felt terribly untethered when I put them in verse without any context. So I redirected. Stanzas became paragraphs. Eventually, the “I” of my poems became the Anna of Hausfrau. Who is not me. But of course, who in some ways is. As we all write from a spot that we recognize even if it’s only distantly.
GF: The novel is being called a kind of contemporary Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, and one thing critics talk about is that the options available to women are generally speaking so radically different now, yet somehow your protagonist, Anna Benz, although living in a contemporary world, inhabits a similar passivity and isolation—-to the frustration of her therapist, and perhaps the reader, at times. Yet it’s important to state that the limited scope of Anna Benz’s world is not at all “unbelievable” or even unusual. Anna is an expat in a country where she has no strong ties and isn’t fluent in the language, and to some extent that “explains” her circumscribed world . . . but I have known so many women with small children who lead similar lives of emotional and social claustrophobia, even in their countries of origin. I’ve heard women talk openly about not being “fulfilled” but putting their lives “on hold” for their children, with the implicit assumption that this is both normative and noble. Many women still relocate for their husbands’ careers, and, despite advanced degrees or prior work experience, leave the workforce to become stay--at--home moms in new cities where they have little in the way of a support network. And obviously many of these women are entirely happy with these choices, and make new friends and have vibrant lives with their kids and their communities . . . but others of course are deeply isolated, frustrated, depressed, and guilty for their “failures” to be either happy homemakers or liberated career women. Can you speak about how conscious you were in writing Hausfrau of purposely deconstructing and illuminating ways in which the situation of the contemporary “housewife” has and hasn’t changed?
JAE: It never occurred to me that I was making a statement about anyone’s situation other than Anna’s (and, to a degree, my own). On the surface, that’s an extremely naïve thing to have thought, so boo on me. On the other hand, if I’d come to the page with a wider agenda, there would be the issue of writing a story that becomes ordinary and vapid simply because of its inclusivity. Do you know what I mean? One of the things that I think gets readers going about Anna is how improbable she seems. I say “seems” because the truth is, a life such as hers isn’t improbable at all. Many women live it, or a version of it. But the bigger picture is her experience of isolation, you’re right to point to that. And I think ultimately that’s the thing that people respond to. We are made separate by the things we do or do not do. Responsibilities of all types curb us. Desire betrays us. No wound is ever truly petty. And there are so many ways to be locked apart from the rest of the world. In our mothers’ era, clinical depression was not usually named as such. The thing about Anna is, she doesn’t put her life on hold for her family. She’s actually not living her life at all. She’s going through her life’s motions. She’s taking no responsibility for it. I suppose in that way I am making a statement. She knows she’s in peril. She’s consciously avoiding acting to save herself. She knows better. And sometimes, some of us, in some things, we do know better. When we know better, I think it’s imperative that we do better. Otherwise we’re perpetuating myths that have for centuries done us no good. Men and women alike. No one is exempt from being called into consciousness.
GF: Anna uses sex as a diversion and a salve and a means of acting out. You write: “Anna loved and didn’t love sex. Anna needed and didn’t need it. Her relationship with sex was a convoluted partnership that rose from both her passivity and an unassailable desire to be distracted. And wanted. She wanted to be wanted.” Psychoanalysis—-on which you draw heavily in the novel—-infamously long held theories that female desire centered (depending on the theory) on either the desire for a child (which convolutedly itself stemmed from so--called penis envy) or the desire to be desired. Do you think that women, even in an era where people broadcast every matter of their wild sex lives in tell--all memoirs, blogs, and social media streams, are still deeply and intrinsically taught that sexual desire is largely about the desire for other things: love, attention, motherhood, approval? How comfortable is the contemporary woman with the desire for sex for sex’s sake—-and with desiring others, rather than “reacting to” others’ desire for her?
JAE: I think that sex for sex’s sake is not possible. Or, if you will, it’s not practically possible. In theory, sure. Bodies rubbing against each other? Great. Let’s go! But. It’s never just that, is it? We aren’t engines, we aren’t machines. There’s limbic intent behind every kiss, every caress. Simply because it’s a person who’s doing the kissing or the caressing. It’s a daredevil act, to let someone fuck you—-to fuck someone—-with whom you don’t have at least some emotional connection. You’re teetering on a tight line. Because you’re naked and unguarded and vulnerable and at the peak of orgasm you may well believe you are invincible. And sex is violent even when it’s gentle. The truth is in the vocabulary. Thrust? Penetrate? Those are words of war. What that means to me is that even when there don’t seem to be stakes—-there are stakes. For example, even the most grown--upiest of grown--ups still have feelings and sometimes feelings get the better of us. And then get in the way.
GF: You’re a Christian, which comes out more overtly in some of your poetry than in Hausfrau, although some interrogations of faith do come up in the novel. However, one thing that struck me strongly in reading Hausfrau—-without giving away too many spoilers—-is the way Anna is . . . well, ultimately tortured in the narrative. One way of reading the novel would be that she pays the ultimate price for her indiscretions—-her sins—-and that the novel serves as a cautionary tale about the retribution a woman can face for lapses in fidelity and maternal virtue. Were you hesitant to lead Anna into such ruin for possessing the same shortcomings male characters are often portrayed as possessing with glib aplomb? Do you worry that some readers will see Anna as “getting what she deserved” and the book will be read as a tale of moral reinforcement for the status quo?
JAE: In one of the last scenes in the novel, Anna asks a priest if he believes in predestination. He then gives her an analogy to do with setting up dominos and knocking them over, the punch line of which is “God gives us the dominos, it’s up to us to set them in line.”
I understand why people think it’s a morality tale. But I think the issue is with the word “morality.” It’s very loaded. What it is, I think, is a tale of what happens when you live your life unconsciously. If you sleepwalk through your days, you will bump into things. If you drive a car blindfolded, you will wreck it. It’s easy to say the novel’s serving as retribution. I did struggle with that in my writing. But the blunt fact is—-there are things we cause to happen, there are things we can prevent from happening. And there are things that can’t be prevented at all no matter what we do. No bony finger from the sky points down and damns her to hell. She calls her own self into final account. It’s a sad moment of ultimate consciousness.
The dominos were dealt. She set them up. She knocked them down. In this case.
GF: You write, in one of the most harrowing passages in the novel, about the “three kinds of tears” and “three kinds of grief.” Can you talk a bit about this, and also about your interest in grief, and whether these extremely poignant and wise observations were archetypal or personal for you?
JAE: Incredibly personal. After my father died I suffered from what is known as (and explored in Hausfrau) “complicated grief” for close to two years. I literally cannot remember what happened during that time—-except I must have eaten a lot because when it was done I was really fat. It’s grief on a carousel—-you ride a horse that goes absolutely nowhere. I can’t even say how it ended except that one day it was gone. I believe it was an act of mercy from a sometimes indifferent universe.
As far as tears—-oy vey. My tears and I have come to a mutual understanding and it’s this: I am to let them fall. I’m forty--three years old. I think I’m pretty much the person I’m going to be. I cry. If I shove the tears down, all they do is rally forces and come back stronger and harder. In fact, one of the first things I tell my classes is not to freak out if I start crying in the middle of workshop—-it just means they’re moving me.
GF: You lived in Switzerland for a time. The novel makes much of national characteristics of the Swiss, and in the end, the fact that Anna is not a Swiss citizen, whereas her husband is, seems to play a crucial role in how she imagines what the outcome of her life will be. In what ways are the roles of women different in Swiss culture than in the United States? Americans often imagine that Europeans are infinitely more liberated and sophisticated and worldly than themselves, but aspects of Swiss culture as you develop it seem highly traditional and almost provincial. Now you live in Texas! Keeping in mind that this is of course just one writer’s subjective opinion and that we don’t wish to start a Swiss--Texan war, where is it easier to be a woman? Or at least, where is it easier to be yourself?
JAE: You know what? It is easier to be a woman now, today, here in Texas at forty--three years old and remarried, than it was then. It’s so hard for me to say anything that isn’t colored by my own rough going at the time I lived there. I was very much like Anna in that I was extremely isolated and had absolutely nothing to do with my time (except write). My husband was in school and, while not Swiss, did have his own set of friends and circumstances and reasons for belonging. And yet I’d longed to live an expat life since girlhood. I made the best of it. I was miserable, mind you, but I wouldn’t trade that misery for the world. It’s crucial to my development as a writer, as a soul.
GF: Anna thinks, “. . . if love is not infinite or eternal? Then I want nothing of it.” What are your own opinions on this quote? What is the nature of love—-finite or infinite—-and should we want anything of it? How have your views on love changed over your lifetime?
JAE: Sappy time. I’m not sure I understood what it felt like to be loved before I met my husband, Alvin. This is not to say I hadn’t been loved before. I’m not speaking to that. Our relationship has instructed me that—-to at least one person—-I’m lovable. And likable. That’s a big one with me. It’s far easier to love someone than to like them. It’s a treasure to have both at the same time. How did I get here? Happy accident. Grace of God.
GF: Anna is very skeptical about making a female friend in Switzerland, but eventually becomes close to Mary. I was fascinated by the ambivalent nuances of their relationship. Our mutual colleague Emily Rapp has written (in an essay for The Rumpus, actually): “Here’s the truth: friendships between women are often the deepest and most profound love stories, but they are often discussed as if they are ancillary, ‘bonus’ relationships to the truly important ones. Women’s friendships outlast jobs, parents, husbands, boyfriends, lovers, and sometimes children.” And you, of course, as a professor, a mentor, and a woman who has been twice divorced and spent a fair amount of time living independently without relying on any man, have led a highly different life than your character Anna’s. I’m interested in your own feelings about female friendships and their role in your life and writing.
JAE: I’m still quite close with a couple of women whom I’ve known since first grade. We still have sleepovers sometimes. I have another friend who has (on more than one occasion, I am not as embarrassed to admit as I ought to be) rushed to my house in the middle of one of my panic attacks just to peel me off the ceiling. Emily Rapp herself has sent me a text or two at a crucial moment of chaos. The poet Jessica Piazza is my first and best reader, and I’ve never laughed so hard in my life as I do with her. We go to these conferences and we have each other’s back (and feet—-we share matched tattoos). My husband is important to me. It’s the central relationship in my life. As it should be. But the first thing I did when I met him was pass him under the eyes of all my girlfriends. As much as I liked him, I told them that if they gave him a thumbs down, I would listen because they knew me and loved me. There’s a whole huge sisterhood that undergirds my life. You’re in it. All the women we teach with are in it. The wives and girlfriends of the men we teach with are in it. Our students are in it. The women we read, the women who read us, your children, my nieces, Emily’s baby girl—-all of us. I got your back, gal. You know it.
GF: Hausfrau beats with the heart of a poet. So many lines slice like lines of poetry. “She had confused herself with the actress who portrayed her.” “Make no mistake: everything has a variant. Like versions of truth, like versions of love, there are versions of sleep.” You also have a deep passion for wordplay, which evokes Lorrie Moore in the fiction universe, but is, for those who know your poetry, absolutely one of your trademarks. What’s next for you in your literary life? Do you have any burning desire to write another novel? Are you back to poetry actively, even as Hausfrau is burning down the house? Will you be polyamorous now between the two?
JAE: I’m finishing a collection of poems right now. I think the old gal might have another novel or two in her—-I confess, I do like writing fiction. Don’t tell poetry. She’ll know I’ve been cheating on her!
This interview originally appeared on TheRumpus.net.
1. That Anna. So—-really—-what’s her deal? Her thoughts loop on a script of immutable passivity, but is that her whole story? From the onset we know she is a flawed protagonist, a damaged character, a woman who is “nothing but a series of poor choices executed poorly.” Taking into account Anna’s personal history, her psychic and spiritual makeup, and those aforementioned poor choices, is there any part of this tragedy that somehow isn’t her fault? What should she be held accountable for? Of what, if anything, are you willing to absolve her?
2. Bruno proposes to Anna with the words “I think you would make a good wife for me.” What, in your opinion, would make him think that? They’ve been together for over a decade. By book’s end it’s clear that Bruno has either known about or suspected Anna’s infidelities the entire time. Why would he tolerate them? Why would he tolerate her? Is this a sign of his weakness or his strength? What does he “get” out of this marriage?
3. Mary, in her decency, stands in direct opposition to the self--centered narcissism of the majority of Anna’s actions. Simply put, Mary seems to be everything that Anna should be but isn’t. But the book suggests that Mary’s two--shoes aren’t altogether goody, so to speak. In three separate instances, she “spills” herself in front of Anna: when she drops her purse and blurts out a more--Anna--than--Mary expletive, when she drops her purse and the erotic novel (and the wistful truth that she regrets not exploring her sexuality) tumbles out, and, finally, when she admits to the bullying and setting the fire. In these ways, Mary has more in common with Anna than Anna is open to recognizing. Do you think Mary can see past Anna’s façade? Do you think she understands Anna on a fundamental level? If not, then do you think she would ever be able to? What do you think will happen to Mary after the book ends?
4. Anna’s lack of morality is almost shocking. What do you think is her gravest mistake? Is there any point during the course of the narrative where she could have stopped the progression of events?
5. Anna rarely tells Doktor Messerli the whole truth. Why, then, do you think she continues the analysis?
6. Anna has never learned to speak German, and yet she exhibits an unmistakable talent for language: she plays with words, turns puns, thinks in entendre—-though rarely does she speak these things aloud. Is it shyness that prevents her from showing this side of herself? Fear? What would it look like if Anna could tap into her “voice”? What would it change?
7. Of all the children, Charles is the most dear to Anna. Victor is too much like Bruno for Anna to fully trust. But as the sole memento of the relationship with Stephen, one might assume that Polly Jean would hold the spot closest to Anna’s heart. Discuss Anna’s relationship with her children. She won’t win mother of the year in anyone’s contest—-but is there any way in which she can be commended? Is there anything she does as a mother that is correct? Good? Nurturing?
8. Anna confesses she majored in home economics in college. Couple this with the perfect memory of sewing with her mother, and the seed of Anna’s present psychology begins to form. As her station as a wife and a mother starts to fail her (or rather, she, them), we are able to understand that somewhere in Anna’s fundamental self she was raised to be these things. Why does she cling to this fantasy if it doesn’t seem to suit her?
9. At the end of chapter 6, Anna thinks, “I wish I’d never met the man.” Which man do you suppose she means?
10. Doktor Messerli warns Anna that “consciousness doesn’t come with an automatic ethic,” and Anna’s choices seem to bear this out. Taking into consideration Doktor Messerli’s explanation of the Shadow, her story of the Teufelsbrücke, and the final events of the book, is it possible to argue that, ethics aside, Anna has come into complete consciousness?
11. Archie says to Anna that a man can smell a woman’s sadness. In the same vein, Anna talks herself through the morning after the physical confrontation with Bruno with a “You had this coming” speech to herself (“I provoked this. . . . I brought this to myself. . . .”). By this reasoning, Anna is an active participant in her own downfall. But Anna claims to be almost entirely passive. Do you consider Anna to be more passive or more active? How does this complicate your understanding of Anna’s psychology?
12. In terms of the structure of the novel, the analytic sessions with Doktor Messerli serve to explicate, illuminate, underscore, and complicate the plot of the book and any conclusion that Anna believes she’s arrived at. Are there any places in the book where this is particularly meaningful to you?
13. There’s an intriguing symmetry to the way that the grammar of the German language—-the tenses, moods, conjugations, false cognates, infinitives, et cetera—-lays itself out in a pattern that easily overlays the poignant heartbreak of the novel. And yet, one of the themes of Hausfrau is language’s ultimate inadequacy. Is that tension resolvable? If so, how? Is this something you have encountered in your own life?
14. The book depends upon the coolness of the Swiss, the impenetrable nature of the landscape, and the solitude of nighttime in order to fully call forth Anna’s deep despair and alienation. Could this book take place in another setting? Anna’s everyday environs—-the hill, the bench, the trains, the Coop—-become characters in their own right. Are there other functions the novel’s setting serves?
15. Hausfrau is in some sense a study in female sexuality. What might the author be suggesting about the sexual appetites of a woman at midlife? What might the author be suggesting about a woman’s emotional needs?
16. An entirely speculative question: What do you think will happen to Bruno and Victor and Polly Jean? Can you imagine their lives post--Anna?