Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Hausfrau: A super-unpleasant therapy session, now available in paperback

Literature is full of characters that you'd really rather not identify with at all. Anna Benz in Hausfrau is right up there on the list.

She is the thirty-something American wife of a Swiss banker and the mother of three young children. Finding herself bored and aimless in a foreign country, with a husband whom she sees as emotionally distant, she carries on a series of affairs that become increasingly more difficult for her to extricate herself from. She is not empowered or particularly intelligent, and she is certainly not noble.

So imagine my dismay when I started seeing myself in passages like this:
Anna was a swinging door, a body gone limp in the arms of another body carrying it. An oarless ocean rowboat.
The exertion is effortless. Surrender is your strong suit. Assent, your forte. You abdicate a little more each day. There's nothing you intend. You do not fight it.
And there's no need to seek out these mistakes, for now it is they who seek you. 
A lot of the reviews for this book highlight the reader's reluctance to spend time in a world where every character is unlikable. And none of those reviewers is wrong. There's not one character in this story to revere, and they all seem to be operating on the premise that they're floundering in their own private hell, with minimal effort expended to peek over the flames occasionally and see how their actions might be affecting others.

The themes that stand out to me—settling, passivity, apathy, hypocrisy, yearning, coping, loneliness, boredom, discontent, victimization, ennui, existential dread—are . . . well, they're unpleasant things to dwell on for any number of pages. But no good comes of ignoring the destructive power of these things in the average human life, and it seems to me that Jill Alexander Essbaum's intent in writing on these themes was to say, "Right, so murder and violence and drugs are certainly dramatic, but do you know what ruins a lot more lives than those three things put together? ISOLATION."

No one should aspire to be like the characters in this book, but there is such a thing as learning what not to do. And the most important thing Anna taught me is this:
But the lie of all lies was that her solitude had been inevitable.