shannon-chatIt feels like we have to start with Anna. I didn’t hate her, yet so many readers seem to find her deplorable. In fact, I think I sympathize with her. I’m not running to jump in random beds, but find myself feeling protective whenever I see her characterized a certain way. I think it’s easy to let Anna’s privilege prevent us from seeing her deep depression, even though it’s clear from the novel’s start. Depression won’t skip over someone just because they live in a beautiful country with a wealthy husband who makes it unnecessary for them to work. Being depressed isn’t the same as simply feeling sad or dissatisfied and it’s not something that can always be fixed with a hobby or new friends, though we’re quick to think of those as cures.

Certainly, Anna’s privilege puts her in a better position to manage her depression than most, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have a significant impact on her life. What is it, exactly, that makes Anna unlikable for so many? Would readers be more accepting of, or able to see, her depression if she lived a less privileged life?

april-chat Agreed. I was ‘Team Anna’ from start to finish with this novel. I related to her in nearly every single way. Having suffered from depression myself it was immediately apparent that this was exactly what she was suffering from. I felt connected to all of her actions and totally felt like I understood her thoughts and motivations, between both her passivity and her actions.

monika-chat Her privilege doesn’t mean much. Even fancy doctors fail her, either dismissing her (“it’s a phase” when she was a child) or, at the other extreme, putting too much burden on their patient—you can’t expect a patient who is clearly having a breakdown to have the wherewithal to call the emergency number for herself on her own. Even when she finally asks for help, nobody is fully there for her. Her family, her friend Mary, her doctor, even the priest…

shannon-chat So right. And it’s a great reminder that privilege can mean many different things depending on context, far beyond race or class.

april-chat You guys just hit the nail on the head here. I’m not sure exactly how to phrase it, but not having to deal with mental illness is definitely a form of privilege, it’s not one that we often talk about—because mental illness (despite one in four Americans suffering from it) still holds a terrible stigma, I think that this is demonstrated greatly through the number of readers who villainize or dislike Anna.

I’m not excusing her actions, however depression and mental illness can lead a person to do strange things—just to feel like they have some control over something. I think this, more than anything else, is what Anna’s affairs were about.

catherine-chat I hear what you’re all saying but I didn’t feel it at all. I had no antipathy towards Anna and when everything crashes down I felt sorry for her, but Essbaum did not make a case for sympathy for me. She was not unlikable to me. In fact, I would have liked not liking her! She generated almost no emotion for me which is probably why the ending didn’t shock me.

Also, I’m not promoting the pharmaceutical industry here, but if Anna has a lifelong battle with depression she should have been on meds. I felt that Essbaum was taking the easy way out and expecting me to feel bad for Anna with very little background.

monika-chat I agree that she did not get any actual, useful help. But I didn’t get the feeling Essbaum was taking the easy way out at all, I thought the depression gave all the background necessary. Wouldn’t it be the most likely reason for her destructive behavior, her inability to “find a hobby” or to “pull herself out of it”? And this happens in real life: women with depression do get brushed off over and over again, sometimes even by professionals.

april-chat For sure! The doctor prescribed tranquilizers, so surely she could have prescribed anti-depressants to stabilize Anna. Her actions at the end of the book (in my opinion) border on malpractice. Anna described her behavior as ‘manic’—Doktor Messerli should have at the very least called emergency services for her.

monika-chat I also can’t help but wonder, does the title of the book lead people to dismiss Anna’s behavior as “expat loneliness” or “domestic boredom”?

Shannon, in your review you mentioned Anna’s trajectory is somewhat “predictable.” I had a lot of possibilities in my mind, including what actually happened, yet I was still completely surprised from that one momentous event to the very end.

shannon-chat I absolutely did not see her son’s death coming, but I sensed fairly early how the novel would end. With that said, I don’t think predictable necessarily means bad. Like you mentioned, it was set up pretty perfectly and, though it wasn’t a happy ending, I think it was the end the book needed.

monika-chat I actually found myself hoping for that particular ending, which made me feel terrible! But at the same time, I could imagine a number of paths that could have offered hope…yet none of the characters stepped up to the plate to help that happen. (Is that an unfair feeling?) I think I was swept away by Anna’s wandering hopelessness in those last pages and just wanted her to get some relief from it all.

april-chat I was completely unsurprised by the ending. I agree that it was the only way the book could have ended in a satisfying manner, however I wish it had been a little less Anna Karenina, I might have preferred a bridge. I was however—to the point of actually gasping—shocked at her son discovering her affair while at the zoo and then later by his death.

Also, I don’t think that’s unfair at all, Monika. Where was everyone when she was truly in crisis? She had just lost a child, I think her actions were predictable and Bruno turning her out of the house at that point, knowing she had little to no support system was irresponsible.

monika-chat As much as I felt for Anna throughout the book, in that particular moment at the zoo when she convinces her son to stay silent…I kind of hated her then (just in that moment).

april-chat It definitely was not her finest moment, but I think that she realized that after the fact and was acting more like a cornered animal rather than a mother. By the time she realized how abhorrent her behavior towards Charles was, it was too late.

catherine-chat I was surprised by the zoo twist but not her response. I never had a sense that Anna cared about anyone but herself—even as a depressive. She had no remorse about her affairs or their impact on others. Which is why I feel like Essbaum was ultimately writing a morality tale. You sin and you pay the price. It wasn’t even for love, it was to self-medicate. She had to pay and by ending this way, Essbaum puts the reader on trial as much as Anna—how will you view her?

shannon-chat Oh, interesting! I didn’t get the sense that Essbaum was judging Anna’s morality, but I’ve read many reviews that seem to agree with you when it comes to Anna’s sense of narcissism. I’ll be curious to see where the comments fall on all of this.

As for Anna Karenina, as soon as I closed the book the parallel bothered me, too. Not so much that it was there, but I knew it would be an obvious comparison and something people would pick up from marketing or other readers before they even started the book.

image from Let’s Talk About Sex

jennifer-chat Speaking of marketing: If a woman enjoys sex must we compare it to erotica? I’ve seen more than one person express their dissatisfaction with the marketing of this book, particularly the “Madame Bovary Meets 50 Shades” pitch. It’s been something sticking in my craw as well. Women have been having (gasp!) and reading about (double gasp!) sex for many years, centuries even. Why does a book wherein a woman has sexual desires have to be compared to erotica? Guess what folks, women dig sex. It’s normal. It’s not kinky, it’s not necessarily erotica. It just IS. I, for one, don’t have a problem with that and I’d wager that many other readers (female or otherwise) don’t either.

catherine-chat Well, that’s just stupid. And offensive to Madame Bovary! I have no issue with sex but I could see a comparison to erotica here because Essbaum uses pretty graphic language in her sex scenes. And, I’ll say it, I don’t like that. Not just here, in any media. I’m a ‘leave something to the imagination’ kind of gal.

monika-chat I didn’t read a synopsis or anything before picking up this book. If I had seen that comparison, I would have skipped the book entirely!

april-chat I had heard the comparison, though not read the synopsis, which is what took me so long to pick it up.

jennifer-chat Did the marketing team decide that people would be lured by comparisons to a sexy book? Did they think they were warning off “good girls” from reading something that might upset their delicate sensibilities? I’m not sure. I do know that if I had seen it compared to 50 Shades of Grey I wouldn’t have read it. Luckily, I picked it up long before the current marketing campaign began.

shannon-chat I’m most offended by the comparison because the gap in quality of writing is mindblowing, but you know they’d never attach that marketing to a comparable novel written by a man. Let me know the next time James Salter gets 50 Shades plastered on one of his books and we can throw this discussion out the window.

april-chat And that’s just it. The same seems to go for the idea of male affairs versus female affairs. I don’t feel with books about men having affairs there’s as much emphasis or, I don’t know, judgement of their motivations. Why as readers are we so quick to either judge Anna for her affairs or find a reason to ‘explain’ them away?

monika-chat There’s definitely a double standard when it comes to male versus female sexuality. Maybe it all goes back to that. It doesn’t seem like there’s much of an attempt to look for a reason for male affairs, whether in books, movies, or even real life. I can’t imagine seeing comments that a man must have been “depressed” or “bored” or “lonely.”

jennifer-chat We, and others, have spent a lot of time talking about Anna’s motivations. WHY did she have affairs? Spin that a little…what if Anna were ALAN. Would we even wonder? Would we ask ourselves so many questions? Would we be talking about his affairs at all? “Boys will be boys”, after all. I feel if this were a male character the affairs wouldn’t be center stage. We certainly wouldn’t be considering his mental state or whether or not he had a hobby to keep him from cheating on his wife.

catherine-chat This is interesting to me because I feel that Essbaum doesn’t play the gender game at all, so why are we? Anna states, “These men were simply the embodiment of urges she no longer wished to deny herself.” She doesn’t allude to boredom, loneliness or depression so I take it as it is written—she doesn’t care. If that’s not the case and there is a reason then, for me, Essbaum doesn’t express it well enough for me to care.

shannon-chat I think this is a good example of what makes the reading experience different for all of us. Some books will move us, while others may not. For me, some of the most interesting things about this novel were unsaid; the way it got me thinking about society’s expectations and perceptions, whether or not a character named “Alan” would worry if he was a “good husband, mostly.”

It’s something Anna tells herself or thinks throughout her marriage. Do we think Anna is a good wife? For that matter, is Bruno a good husband?

april-chat I think that Anna is the best wife that she can be under the circumstances. It all goes back to her untreated depression. She goes to the market, she gets out of bed, she cares for her children, and yes: she sleeps around. But at the same time she’s a stranger in a strange and unwelcoming land—struggling against her depression—struggling to control something. Sex is something she has complete control over.

I don’t think that Bruno is a bad husband, perhaps an unobservant one—though this theory has problems when we consider the statement that Bruno ‘knew everything’—we’re left as readers wondering how much he actually did know. Also, I think there was something of a cultural barrier between the two—even after all those years of marriage.

jennifer-chat What makes a good wife in the first place? What kind of “good wife” is the author asking us to consider? The typical good wife, yes? The sort of wife that doesn’t have affairs, certainly. We know for sure that Anna doesn’t fit into that particular archetype.


Read Our Reviews: 

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What do you think, readers? What role did the cultural differences play in Hausfrau? What if Anna was Alan—how would that have affected readers’ reactions? Did you find Anna unlikable? If so, how did that impact your reading?  Is there something else about this novel that you’re dying to discuss?

Remember, you don’t have to worry about spoilers here, and we hope you’ll engage with other commenters as well!