Thursday, April 23, 2015

audiobook review: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

narrated by Mozhan Marno

The basics: Anna Benz is a bored American housewife who has been living in the suburbs of Zurich, Switzerland with her Swiss husband for ten years. They have three children, but Anna is lonely and has not learned the languages of Zurich. As she begins taking a German class, she also begins an affair with a Scottish man in her class.

My thoughts: There's been a lot of discussion about Anna's likability. I'm not a reader who needs characters to be likable, but I do need them to be interesting and somewhat relatable. Anna is quite interesting, as she keeps secrets from her psychotherapist, her family, the reader, and to some degree herself. And she makes terrible decisions. Repeatedly. Yet I never became frustrated with these decisions, as I could always understand why Anna made them, even as I acknowledge anyone else making them would be mad.

After hearing Mozhan Marno, one of my absolute favorite narrators, was doing the audio for Hausfrau, I took the galley out of my TBR and pre-ordered the audiobook. Marno brought Anna to life and infused her with the appropriate varying amounts of sadness, despair, and despondency. She made Anna a puzzle as her voice shifts as Anna interacts with different people. For a book filled with depression, I wouldn't call it a depressing read. One unfortunate marketing quote claims Hausfrau is a cross between Madame Bovary and Fifty Shades of Gray, by which I think was meant: Jill Alexander Essbaum wrote a literary novel with some graphic, erotic sex scenes. (I only made it through one paragraph of Fifty Shades, not because I'm a prude but because the writing was unbearably bad.) The sex in Hausfrau is notable. Sometimes it's hot, sometimes it's destructive, and sometimes it's both.

Perhaps my favorite part of Hausfrau was how Essbaum used German grammar as parallels for Anna's mental state. Through her German classes and her visits with her psychoanalyst, Anna narrates connections she finds between herself and the structure of language. It's clear in these moments that Essbaum is a poet. Her grasp of language, syntax, and construction is paralleled beautifully by her nuanced grasp of Anna, emotionally and psychologically.

The verdict: Hausfrau reminded me a lot of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, a novel I wish had gotten as much attention as Hausfrau is getting (not instead of, but in addition to.) It's unfortunate that so much of what I read compares it to a couple of well known classics because while the description (bored housewife in Zurich has affairs to combat boredom and depression) is accurate, it doesn't capture the depth and quality of what Essbaum does here, which is to tell a good story plotwise, but also to have layers of depth running through it.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 9 hours 43 minutes (336 page)
Publication date: March 17, 2015
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Hausfrau from Amazon (Kindle edition--only $5.99!)

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  1. I enjoyed The Woman Upstairs much more than Hausfrau. I enjoy reading about unlikeable characters, but Hausfrau didn't work for me. The writing style was annoying, but perhaps the audio version meant these problems weren't as noticeable? Glad you enjoyed it more than I did.

    1. I liked The Woman Upstairs more too! I often wonder how much my enjoyment of a book depends on whether I read it or listen to it, particularly as I now read and listen about equally.


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