Prepare yourself. You're going to be hearing quite a bit of buzz about Jill Alexander Essbaum's Hausfrau, and everything good you hear will be true. This complex, disturbing tale of a thirty-something ex-pat will get under your skin. There are so many layers and ways to think about the novel that it begs to be discussed and savored.
Anna Benz has lived in Zürich for nine years with her Swiss husband, Bruno, and their three children. Although Anna shops, takes the kids to school, and explores the city, she has found it difficult to connect with Switzerland, her in-laws, and the other ex-pats she meets.
Finally fed up with Anna's loneliness and unhappiness, Bruno insists she see a therapist ("Go fix yourself," he tells her), and on her therapist's advice, Anna begins taking German lessons. As far as most people know, this is exactly how Anna spends her time: seeing the Frau Doktor and attending her language classes.
What Anna really does is another thing altogether. She has multiple secret lives, hiding parts of herself from her children, her husband, her therapist, her few acquaintances, her lover, her teacher. And as the many sides of Anna start to clash and then peel apart, she finds herself at an unexpected crossroad.
Although I know Hausfrau would be fantastic in print, I can't say enough wonderful things about the unabridged audiobook, read by Mozhan Marnò, whose performance is virtually flawless. I was impressed with how smoothly she switched among the accents and inflections needed for the cosmopolitan cast of characters. Marnò's challenge, however, went beyond rendering, say, a Scottish accent; she also had to capture different levels of butchered English spoken by the native Swiss and then render all those voices consistently throughout the audiobook.
One of the most brilliant and intriguing aspects of Hausfrau is the way Essbaum used Anna's therapy sessions and language lessons as signposts for Anna's life. Here too, Marnò's narration shone. Subtle pauses give the listener the space to absorb what the author intends: What does the good Doktor mean when she explains the difference between want and need? How do those irregular German verbs describe Anna's behavior?
But more than anything listeners will remember, as I wrote for AudioFile magazine, Marnò's ability to manifest the fog of Anna's depression and then sweep it away cleanly during her moments of hope and resolve. The emotional depth of Marnò's performance matches the complexity of Anna's conflicting needs, connecting listeners solidly with her pain and confusion.
The combination of Mozhan Marnò's sensitive performance and Jill Alexander Essbaum's unforgettable story of a woman's struggle to understand herself and her place in the world make Hausfrau one of the year's best audiobooks.
For a sample of the audiobook, hit the play button below (note: not for family listening).
Print: Random House, March 17, 2015
Audio: Random House Audio; 9 hr, 43 min
Source: Review (audio) (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)