reviewed by Tiffany Hawk (Air Force)
“Anna was a good wife, mostly.” So goes the already famous opening line of poet Jill Alexander Essbaum’s exquisitely written debut novel.
The qualifier creates instant conflict, but so do the words preceding that notorious comma. This woman’s entire life comes down to her role as spouse. Many reviewers have questioned that very premise in a day when no middle class woman can possibly feel so trapped, or bored, or lonely that, like Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina, she destroys herself while trying to feel alive.
Unlike the heroines of nineteenth century literature, as Slate reviewer Ruth Graham claims, an American woman like Essbaum’s Anna Benz “is free to do just about anything she wants.” Why doesn’t she have more friends? Why doesn’t she get a job? A divorce? Why can’t she tell her husband about her unhappiness?
As a military wife, I don’t find Anna’s desperation hard to buy. My husband has had assignments that came with active spouse communities, oodles of kid-friendly events, a key spouse and command spouse who checked up on me during deployments. We’ve also has assignments that left me alone in the boonies with two kids, no childcare (thus no ability to work), no squadron support or community, an often absent husband, long winters and…you’re starting to get the picture.
Granted, Anna’s banker husband, Bruno, is not in the military. But his job does call him abroad, and like many of us, Anna follows. In her case, they move to a bland suburb in Switzerland, “where a smile will give you away as an American.” She feels isolated in this Switzerdeutsch-speaking community and spends her time with three small children while her husband focuses on his career, which fortunately provides them a very comfortable living. Comfortable enough that we ask, “How can she complain?”
How indeed. It can be hard to ask for help when you have a well-to-do life with a generally well-intentioned, well-providing husband. Telling him about your dissatisfaction might help, or it might make matters worse, even if he isn’t as cold as Anna’s Bruno. Substitute Bruno’s self-absorption with OPSEC or morale, and you have a familiar gulf of unspoken concerns and unmet needs.
Instead of asking for change, we’re supposed to be grateful. In fact, we are grateful. I know I am. And therein lies the rub. I’m thankful to have food on the table (and a nice bottle of Napa cab on occasion), and God knows I’m relieved not to be advertising my attributes on Match.com. So when times were tough, I sucked it up. Or worse, I told myself I was happier than ever, so blessed, living the dream. After all, I knew what I was getting into. And what I stood to lose.
I’ve never been, or known any military wife who was, as lost as Anna Benz, who escapes her tedium with a series of fiery, page-turning, graphically-rendered affairs. (Wouldn’t that give us something to talk about at the next spouse coffee?!) But what about other addictions or destructive and alienating behaviors?
Here’s a less titillating, but all too common example. Ever heard a mom slam another mom for a perceived parenting failure? Of course you have. Does she really, truly care whether or not that other mother was feeding her child from her breast? Or letting her baby cry for a few minutes in the middle of the night? Or, instead, is she, are we, so bored and so unwilling to admit to our own desperate ennui that we construct a dissertation’s worth of judgments just to engage our minds? Then heatedly post them on Facebook in order to feel seen.
As Dr. Messerli, Anna’s psychoanalyst and the book’s philosophical compass, says, “A lonely woman is a dangerous woman…A lonely woman is a bored woman. Bored women act on impulse.”
Even in the twenty-first century, loneliness and domestic boredom abound. Military members and civilians alike relocate for work with record frequency, and the average American woman probably only sees her neighbors as they drive into the garage each night.
Hausfrau’s detractors are correct in saying we have far more options than the women of yore, but it can be incredibly difficult to exercise those options, especially for those who PCS every other year. As our careers wither, we turn our ambitions to baking Pinterest pastries and selling Scentsy candles, and we try our damndest to convince ourselves we’re fulfilled. Then we secretly ask, “What’s wrong with me that this isn’t enough?”
So, no, I don’t find it impossible to believe that Anna doesn’t finally see a therapist, invest in friendships, or go back to school until it’s far too late. (Like her nineteenth century counterparts, she faces gruesome consequences for her actions.)
Though Anna is exceptionally listless and her despondency does grow wearying, Hausfrau is not anachronistic. Laws and social mores may have changed since Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina screwed around, but we still heed their warning – don’t ask for more or you will be ruined.
Essbaum’s protagonist is ruined indeed, but her message is different. She does not suggest we lie in the beds we made. She asks us to admit it already – being a good wife just isn’t enough.
Essbaum, Jill Alexander. Hausfrau. Random House, 2015.
Buy Hausfrau here
New York Times review of Hausfrau
‘Don’t Judge a Book By its Cover’: The Cover Design process for Hausfrau (fascinating!!)
About the Reviewer:
Tiffany Hawk is a former flight attendant with a BA from UCLA and an MFA from UC Riverside. Her debut novel, Love Me Anyway, was published in 2013 by St. Martin’s Press, and her short fiction and personal essays have appeared in such places as The New York Times, The Potomac Review, StoryQuarterly, and NPR’s “All Things Considered.” She has also worked as travel editor at Coast magazine and as a freelance journalist for publications that include the Los Angeles Times, Sunset, CNN.com, GQ.com, and National Geographic Traveler. She is a private writing coach and has taught writing workshops at Rutgers University, Southern New Hampshire University, and The Writer’s Center in DC.
A slightly more personal look, from Tiffany herself:
- “I married a pilot. Cliché, I know. And we’re total airplane geeks. We quote Top Gun, talk in airline jargon, and we never tire of watching Air Force One fly by our home at Andrews AFB.”
- “Since leaving home, I’ve moved 19 times and lived on both US coasts as well as in London. The longest I’ve spent in one residence is 2 1/2 years. The shortest is something like three months.”
Tiffany’s own acclaimed novel, the “darkly funny, compulsively readable” Love Me Anyway, can be purchased here and will be discussed on your faithful Mil Spouse Book Review in upcoming weeks. (Editor’s Note: My Mom gave it five stars!)