The Expat Experience: Hausfrau

HausfrauThere is a quote that does the rounds of expat circles: a man once said that when he dies, he wants to come back as an expat wife. It’s an understandable (if tactless) remark. There is a perception of an expat life of privilege in exotic locations, on a generous salary and benefits package, sitting around sipping cocktails and with nothing else to do except hatch intrigues.

While there may still be some such ‘expat bubbles’ out there, in most cases the reality is quite different. In many cases the so-called trailing spouse (most of them still remain women in this day and age, although there are some men too following the careers of their wives) has had to give up her own career, is lonely, frustrated, resentful and isolated. The expat packages have been reduced, they do not speak the language and they have to adapt to a completely alien culture, where even doing the supermarket shopping or installing a telephone line becomes an epic battle.

This is the case with Anna, the self-destructive protagonist of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel Hausfrau, set in a suburb of Zürich. Anna is an American woman who thought she had chosen order and reliability when she followed her Swiss husband back to his home country. Instead, she feels dead inside. Whether we can empathise with her or not, Essbaum describes Anna’s circumscribed lifestyle, her feeling of entrapment, very clearly. Anna is only just learning the language. She doesn’t have many friends, certainly not among the Swiss, and her banker husband is cold and distant. She doesn’t drive, so she is dependent on trains or on her husband’s or mother-in-law’s willingness to give her a lift.

Anna was a good wife, mostly… It’s not just an adage, it’s an absolute fact: Swiss trains run on time… From Pfäffikon, the train made sixteen stops before it reached Dietlikon, the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led… the ordinary fact of a train schedule modulated Anna’s daily plans… Boredom, like the trains, carried Anna through her days…


Visitors to Switzerland revel in the quaint, chocolate-box prettiness, tidiness and order, but, just as there is a malaise beneath the politeness and well-functioning machinery of Japanese society, there is something sinister about the myriad of rules and regulations in this Alpine country. Outwardly, Anna follows her rules: goes to German language classes, picks her children up from school, dutifully goes to see a psychoanalyst to deal with her depression. She is infuriatingly passive and accepting, a passenger in her own life.

Allowing Bruno to make decisions on her behalf absolved her of responsibility. She didn’t need to think. She followed along. She rode a bus that someone else drove. And Bruno liked driving it. Order upon order. Rule upon Rule. Where the wind blew, she went… it grew even easier with practice.

But of course one will suffocate under all those rules at times. Swiss youths rebel through drug-taking and suicide; Anna rebels by having reckless flings. The book has been compared (even by myself) with those other novels about adulterous women Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, but Anna is much less guided by passion and idealism. If anything, she is far too self-aware, self-critical and analytical. Every phrase she learns in German class, every discussion with her analyst is dissected and applied to her life.

Love’s a sentence. A death sentence… The body would become ravaged. And the heart will become broken… ‘To become’ implies motion. A paradoxical move toward limp surrender. Whatever it is, you do not do it. It is done to you. Passivity and passion begin alike. It’s only how they end that’s different.

Jill Alexander Essbaum, from

Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, her risk-taking reaches endemic proportions… and then tragedy strikes. I won’t say more, except that Essbaum is a poet and her fragmented prose style may not be to everyone’s taste, while the descriptions of sex are anything but poetic. I was initially sceptical of just how relevant the German class or psychoanalyst discussions were to the main story, but they provide surprising analogies to the banality of marital breakdown and adultery. I personally loved the mix of barbed observational wit, philosophical ruminations and poetic despair. In some ways, it reminded me of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, but I liked this one more, even though it’s longer. It has a well-defined story arc, it’s raw and emotional and very, very honest, with none of the cold detachment of Offill’s book.

I’ve mentioned previously how excited I was to receive this book for review from Penguin Random House. A great addition to my collection of novels about expats – and a timely one, given that I am currently writing a novel about expats. Below is a list of my personal favourites among this type of novels, and the countries in which they are set. The protagonists may feel at first like fish out of water but end up being forever changed by the countries they live in. Word of caution: none of them seem to end well!

Glamorous expat life? From The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Glamorous expat life? From The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Chris Pavone: The Expats (Luxembourg)

Hilary Mantel: Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (Saudia Arabia)

Somerset Maugham: The Painted Vale (China)

Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr. Ripley (Italy)

Christopher Isherwood: The Berlin Stories (Germany)

Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano (Mexico)

Lawrence Durrell: The Alexandria Quartet (Egypt)

Graham Greene: The Quiet American (Vietnam)

Joseph Conrad: The Heart of Darkness (Congo)

Henry James: The Ambassadors (France)

Elsa Marpeau: L’Expatriée (Singapore)


41 thoughts on “The Expat Experience: Hausfrau”

  1. Marina Sofia – I can imagine it might be very difficult to be an ex-pat, especially in a culture where you don’t know the language. It sounds as though those challenges are captured well here, even if one doesn’t like Anna’s character. And I always think it’s interesting when a poet writes a novel; there’s something lyrical about the writing style, even if the topic is bleak.

  2. and what a list! I am tempted to suggest Voyage en Orient (ce vieux Gustave!) Under the Volcano is still for me a mystery, yet fascinating account of a double journey (Mexico and alcoholism)… How about Kafka on the Shore?

    1. I LOVE Kafka on the Shore, but it’s not really expat – just the move from urban to rural Japan (Murakami does a lot of that in his books, especially with Hokkaido). I wanted to distinguish between travel literature and those who actually have to live in those countries for a longer period of time.

  3. Actually the first time I heard that expression was back in 1991 when I was living in Brazil and I used to I use to carpool to the office with a colleague that lived in tha same apartment building. One day, the lift to the garage stopped and two women entered wearing their tennis outfit. When they left my friend said that in her next life he would like to be an expat wife.

    1. There you go: it’s not just a rumour, but real! I’m not saying that some expat spouses don’t enjoy their lifestyle, or appreciate their good fortune, but it’s never as simple or as rosy as it first appears.

  4. Thanks for reviewing this one, I am still not sure whether to pick it up or not because of some of the subject matter. Also thanks for the other suggestions. I love the film of The Talented Mr Ripley but I’ve never read the book. Good luck with your novel.

    1. It is not the easiest of reads, I have to admit, but if you are feeling strong enough for it, it’s well written, I believe. The Ripley film differs quite substantially from the book, but the casting is impeccable and Minghella directed it so well. I’ll never forget Jude Law singing ‘Io no soi Americano’ in an Italian jazz bar – it’s one of those career-defining moments.

  5. Utterly intrigued by this one Marina… Have a few expat friends & family and their experiences differ…

    Like Margot interested to see how poetry affects & influences her prose

    Adding to must read list… my #TBR20 willpower is being extremely tested.

    1. As far as I know, the author was herself an expat for a while in Switzerland.
      Yes, my TBR Double Dare has gone down the drain, sadly. But I hope to do the #TBR20 at some point after the Lyon crime festival.

      1. oh Think I missed your TBR Double Dare….what was that?

        My heads been turned by the Bailey’s longlist – of which I only have 3… But keen to read as many as I can to appreciate all the reviews & chats

        1. It means reading only books from my TBR shelves (or tablet) until the end of March. Ahem… I’ve not been able to resist sneaking other books in.

  6. I’ve read about 50 pages of this and am enjoying it so far. It’s good to see you liked it, but I think I need to get hold of The Expats by Chris Pavone as you’re the second person in one hour to recommend it!

    1. I did see the movie first (as a child) and then wanted to read the book. But that was the black and white version with Greta Garbo. I haven’t seen the recent one – I suppose that’s the one you recommend?

  7. I really enjoyed this book …and I didn’t expect to . Not so keen on the psychoanalytical sections but loved the stuff about language …..definitely recommend reading !

    1. The ‘know-it-better’, admonishing analyst as the voice of conscience… yes, like you (and as a linguist), I preferred the language comparisons.

  8. I’m certainly interested in this. I suppose being an ex-pat in Zürich can’t be compared to being an ex-pat in Basel. Basel being ultra-liberal, ultra-leftist is quite welcoming. For English-speaking ex-pats. I know many who have been here over ten years, don’t speak the language and still feel like fish in water. The population grew from 180,000 to over 200,000 in a few years. The bulk being from English-speaking countries. Walking the streets I often hear more English than any other language.
    But, unfortunately, the situation described in this book is more ususal.

    1. Thank you for your very interesting comparison. I live in Geneva and I too hear English almost more frequently than French. But it’s still not easy if you are looking for life outside the ‘bubble’.
      And of course Anna is a very special case…

      1. I have to admit that the ex-pats I know live among ex-pats. The city welcomes them but the people don’t, if you know what I mean. They will not easily be invited into the homes of Swiss-born people.

  9. Wow, interesting! I was an expat in China, and it was completely awkward to be the only (young, single) female professional expat within a professional circle of expat men, while all their expat wives were living in closed communities. Like a space travel back to the 1950s!! The husbands I saw on weekdays weren’t the husbands I sometimes saw with their wives on weekends, it was shocking. As a result I didn’t like to socialize so much with them on weekends.
    Re: the book, I’m not sure if mixed nationality marriages are something different than “real” expats where both husband and wife relocate on a temporary basis to an unknown country (double culture shock + looming perspective of return).

    1. What an interesting experience that must have been for you – unsettling, but certainly something to think/write about. Yes, the fact that Anna’s husband is Swiss and her mother-in-law lives close by certainly adds to the difficulties…

  10. Great review, Marina. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed this one more than Dept, of Speculation. Like Poppy, I have a few ex-pat friends and their situations seem to differ quite markedly. The ex-pat wives with children seem to have found easier to integrate than those without families, but I don’t know if their experiences are representative of the norm.

    Thanks for the list of novels about expats. I really should get around to Isherwood’s Berlin stories.

    1. Well, I’m a serial expat, but it’s very different when you are the one doing the moving or being moved, depends on so many other factors, as you say. What I’ve discovered is that just because you dealt with it well once doesn’t mean you’ll deal with it well next time…

  11. This sounds really interesting, especially since I’m also being a Swiss expat with an trailing husband!

    I was intrigued with your second quote. Does Anna have any sense of responsibility for her unhappiness? She’s described as a good wife, but is her husband a good husband and does she feel she can leave or does that never cross her mind? Guess I’ll just have to read the book!

  12. This is one I’ve been wanting to read for a while but haven’t yet got my hands on a copy! I love how you’ve opened this review, drawing our attention to the potential gap between fantasy and reality. The details are lost on me now, but it reminds me of some research that I read about which was done probably in the 1960s about the precarious position of “diplomatic wives”. It’s an interesting topic and I’m intrigued about your own writing project.

    1. Sorry, I saw your comment after I saw your RT, so I asked if you’d read it. It’s marketed as a thriller, but it really isn’t. It’s very analytical and thoughtful – and people seem to love to hate Anna. But I do understand where she’s coming from. I’ve seen this as a child too with my parents’ generation… and it doesn’t seem to be getting much better.

  13. I can’t relate to this, since I’ve never lived outside of France but I’m interestedin this book. (I wonder if it’s plausible to have a grown-up American without a driving licence, though. Does that exist?)
    It must be hard to be uprooted and complicated to make a new life in a country without having a job. It’s hard to meet new people when you’re an adult.

    1. Now that you mention it, it does sound implausible – although, to be fair, I think that if you don’t change your American driving licence within the first few months of arriving in Switzerland, it’s not valid anymore and you need to retake all the tests. I had that same thing happen to me in England (at that point Romania was not part of the EU and the driving licence was not considered valid), but because I lived in London I didn’t drive for years. Result: I had to take lessons again and redo my exam.

  14. I must get round to this; everyone’s reading it at the moment! I’ve got a copy of The Expats by Chris Pavone, and I loved The Painted Veil and The Quiet American. My best friend is an expat – she moved to Rotterdam 12 years ago, and is only now learning Dutch. She’s worked in executive PA jobs in Boeing and Shell, who all seem to work in English. Some expats are fleeing their old life, and reinventing themselves in their new country…

  15. Couldnt resist the temptation Marina – just finished it and blown away… I loved the style & structure and bucking the trend did care about Anna & disliked the ‘do-gooder’ Mary intensely, actually saw her as manipulative & played a large part in Anna’s fate

    Keen to compare it to Dept. Of Speculation

  16. Great post; I’m especially grateful for your list of “expat novels” (with hopefully another one — yours — to add to the list soon)! Thanks for the follow — I look forward to following your blog as well!

Do share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.