This novel is a window into the discontentment of an American woman living in Zurich with her Swiss husband and their children.
Anna is a glum housewife. She has all the material wants and needs – a family, friends, sex, money – but she finds no joy or purpose in her motherhood or wifeliness or womanhood. Anna has no direction, either, unless you consider “direction” to be running away from her life into the arms of other men.
I hated to see Anna so numb to the world, feeling like a shell of a person. Halfway through the book, there seemed to be no solution, no psychoanalytical instruction, no amount of sexual gratification that would shake her out of it.
Then I read the second half. I let the book sink in. And even though I planned on writing a review, not a literary analysis, I realized that Essbaum did a couple of brilliant things:
First, Essbaum created the absence of the belief in God, but the presence of God. There’s a church within sight of Anna’s home, a church she walked by every day. Also, Anna questioned her therapist and her husband about the existence of God. She pondered her parents’ and in-laws’ religious beliefs and practices as well.
Second, Essbaum made Anna’s character have no god whatsoever. Anna didn’t adore money, or sex, or her husband, or herself. As a matter of fact, the only possible feeling Anna did have was toward one of her sons. Because he was eventually taken from her, she didn’t even end up having a pretense of love to hold onto. And after Anna lost her son, she lost everything: friends, family, sex, money.
Essbaum illustrated the material losses. I felt them.
Indeed, Anna was without love. And without love, there is nothing.
Essbaum described Anna’s loneliness and depression as spiraling inward… At some point a spiral ends at not a pinpoint, but at a hole, at nothingness. So if Anna represents this infinite absence, the antithesis would be someone or something that is everything and ever-present. There’s only one thing that fits the bill: Love. And if she’s looking for someone to personify love: God.
Whether Essbaum does or doesn’t want to make a faith statement is an arguable point, but if there’s no God, what IS there to fill up Anna’s lack?
Some people will think Hausfrau is just about an unhappy wife who can’t settle in to Swiss culture. Some will cry for more help for the mentally ill, or programs for cultural assimilation. Some readers will condemn Anna’s infidelity and the coolness of the Swiss family. Some may be angry that Anna was beaten for her transgressions. Some readers might think Anna’s husband should be part of the solution to Anna’s despair.
But I don’t know that the book was really about those symptoms of cheating and sadness and anger. I think it’s about the absence, the nothingness, the lack.
I submit that all Anna needed to do before she lost everything – or better, after she lost everything – was look to God.