Anna is a good wife, mostly. So opens Jill Alexander Essbaum’s explosive novel about a drowning marriage and a woman who strands herself on a doomed island long before the water rushes in. Tolstoy said every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. While Tolstoy’s tragic love story may influence Essbaum, modern Switzerland is hardly imperial Russia, and Anna’s unhappiness is a modern version of Mrs. Karenina’s.
Anna is not very likeable. She is beautiful enough to attract a wealthy Swedish banker husband and a comfortable home. (She lives with her husband and two sons in the small town of Dietlikon, outside of Zurich, Switzerland.) She is a wife, a mother and an adulteress; but once she was a daughter, then she was alone and then she fell in a certain version of love with a man. She is a woman walking the edge, taunting fate.
Anna does inspire empathy despite her less attractive qualities (her lies, her justifications, the pleasure she seems to take in hurting herself). Language isolates her: an English-speaker floating in an ocean of German, Schwiizerdutsch and Hochdeutsch. According to the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis the structures of native languages shape perception and actions. Her whole world is foreign. Her husband and two boys share the joys of a Swedish countryside childhood that Anna cannot understand, let alone relate to. Learning a new language, adapting to change, and a new culture is more difficult at Anna’s age. Language, or something deeper within herself, paralyzes Anna however, and she slips farther away from her family despite half-hearted attempts at learning German.
Anna’s husband is distant, the stereotype of a man who works too hard to provide for his family and to keep up certain appearances. He is a powerful man and a possessive one. He is a man who likes beautiful things but does not know how to appreciate them. Her mother-in-law is cold, helpful but disdainful of the American bride she never approved of. Anna’s whole world is one of disapproval, a struggle of translation and of fear.
Anna’s therapists calls her passive—says she needs to engage with the world. Anna loves her children, motherhood, even her husband in a way—a version of love. She is unable to connect however. Only through violent sex does she feel alive and connected to the land of the living. Her therapist is the element of humanity, the voice that draws out and underlines passages of Anna’s story. Their conversations are beautifully written, a cross between slam poetry and philosophy.
The plot is both riveting and sickening. Why does Anna seem determined to destroy her life? How did she become so isolated, how did she become an adulteress? Essbaum doles out answers while building a path of more questions. In the end no one knows Anna—not even herself.
Even if we can’t relate to Anna’s promiscuity and violent sexual inclinations we can understand the female role she represents. We recognize the isolation, the dependence and house-shaped world Anna lives in from Victorian novels and history books. Anna is a woman from another era: she has no money of her own, no job or confidence in her skills outside homemaking (she studied home-economics in college), and her husband determines the size of her world. The only fleeting feeling of control Anna gets is from her secrets, her violent crimes she commits against herself and her marriage.
Anna’s choices led to her situation: Women today can do almost anything we want. True, we still struggle against sexist salaries and workplace practices, are fighting for our contraceptive rights, and are not constitutionally equal. (Congress and the U.S. House of Representatives passed The Equal Rights Amendment and sent the proposed 27th Amendment to the Constitution to the states for ratification in 1972. The amendment is still not ratified, despite being introduced in every session of Congress since 1982.) We can vote however, and support ourselves, raise our own children, apply for a loan, buy a house, even ask for a divorce.
Anna’s choices, from a certain angle, beg for female judgment. Why, after everything women in past generations went through, would a modern woman waste her education on home-making skills? Why would she put herself in a situation where her only currency, emotional or otherwise, is her body? Feminism does not mean women can’t belong in the home, only that women should have the choice of being in the home or not. Anna represents the part of every woman that, when alone and desperate and upset, makes choices we regret. One choice leads to another and we become trapped by ourselves.
The allusions to Tolstoy and the psychology of language are a little heavy-handed at times, and the violent sex is not very much fun to read (overdone without adding much). Anna is a well-developed character however, and the twist before the twist is both horrifying and perfectly timed (plot wise). This novel is well-paced, with the right blend of philosophy and human drama, and an unreliable narrator we love to hate (yet still sympathize with).