Hausfrau — the German word for housewife — is the story of Anna, an attractive American married to a Credit Suisse banker whose life as the mother of three in Switzerland takes an adulterous turn when illicit sex becomes a way to combat boredom.
Just like Emma in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Anna feels trapped, depressed and alienated by her small-town, middle-class life.
Hausfrau was inspired in part by Essbaum's own experience living in Dietlikon, a suburb outside Zurich, for two years. A poet from Texas, Essbaum moved across the pond so that her then-husband could study Jungian psychoanalysis in Switzerland's largest city.
While Essbaum saw much to like about Switzerland – its idyllic beauty, clean air, punctual trains and ubiquitous church bells – she also keenly felt the loneliness of expat life.
“My inspiration, in the end, turned out to be my own self,” Essbaum told The Local in an email.
“I wanted to write a story that approximated my own, which in the end turned out to be an unhappy one.”
Essbaum began the novel upon her return to the United States following the breakdown of her marriage.
She felt as if her two years in Switzerland had been a waste — she describes herself at that point as devastated, sad and tired — but she nevertheless sought to explore this difficult period of her life in her writing.
“I'd been isolated and alone – like Anna – and I never quite learned the language well enough to settle into a day-to-day routine that would make me feel as if I belonged,” Essbaum says.
“The story began as a way to enflesh that phantom sadness.”
Part of this alienation is a natural outcome of Essbaum's profession, as she herself admits. As a writer, she spent much of her time in Switzerland alone rather than surrounded by colleagues in a busy office.
But language also proved to be a hurdle to integration, just like it is for Anna in her novel.
“I wish I could have spoken German better,” Essbaum says.
“I took lessons and I got better but I was crippled by my ultimate inability to understand how to translate the things I thought into comprehensible sentences.”
The pace of life in pastoral Switzerland also took time to get used to, Essbaum says. In North America's 24-hour society, the sleepless can mingle with others in a shop or restaurant in the middle of the night.
Not so in Switzerland, where stores close in the early evening and on Sundays.
Compared to Essbaum and most expats, Anna has plenty of opportunities to connect with Swiss society, including through her husband, mother-in-law and young children. But she shows little interest in doing so.
Searching for a way to fill up the loneliness inside of her, Anna effortlessly embarks on a string of mindless affairs, described in graphic detail throughout the novel.
Essbaum points out that while alienation may be more visible as an expat, it's not the only place where it occurs. Anna brings most of her isolation and loneliness on herself through her very nature, and circumstances “push her over the edge”
“There's so many ways to be exiled from a community, from oneself,” Essbaum says. “It's simply more evident in the case of expatriation, when things like language and geography come into play on a daily basis.
Then, everything's a barrier to connection. Or, it can be, if one isn't careful.”
Intriguingly for a novel focused on expat life in Switzerland, featuring everything from train rides and shopping trips to the Coop supermarket to German language classes with other expats, it has resonated within the English-speaking world far beyond the Alps.
Hausfrau was published in English in March and became a New York Times bestseller. The Observer called it a “seductive debut” and a “page turner about depression”, while the Huffington Post hailed it as a “powerful, lyrical novel.”
Publication of the German translation of the novel is slated for September.
The novel, unsurprisingly, has already attracted the attention of Swiss papers, which have focused on Anna's affairs and dubbed it Fifty Shades of Dietlikon.
The Swiss are asking themselves if life is really so difficult for expats. The answer is “jein.”
Many women and men find themselves following a spouse or partner to Switzerland. It's not easy to learn a language, make new friends, or master the small details of a foreign life even in Switzerland.
Essbaum's novel sheds light on those foreigners, like herself, who struggle to find contentment in the world's happiest country.
For more about the author, check here.