Anna Benz, the heroine of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s compelling novel, has little in common with today’s modern woman. She is not an equal partner in her marriage to her Swiss husband Bruno, a high-earning banker. She lacks women friends. She shows little maternal interest in her three children. She does not drive or even have her own bank account. In fact, she is so disengaged from her environment, a picture-perfect suburb of Zurich, that it is nine years before she bothers to try to learn German.
We meet American-born Anna, who is pretty and in her late thirties, as she starts her language course. She is also having therapy with a Jungian-trained female psychiatrist, Dr Messerli. Although Anna is chronically crippled by social inhibitions, she is uninhibited sexually. She escapes from life through erotic no-strings-attached sexual encounters with near-strangers, and even goes straight to a therapy session on her way home from one such emotionally empty liaison. “Some women collected spoons. Anna collected lovers,” observes Essbaum.
The psychiatrist — and the reader — struggle to deal with Anna’s lack of drive and total passivity. Doesn’t she think she has a responsibility to be something, Dr Messerli asks. “I can see your point. You may be right,” Anna replies, but is not nudged into action.
Little might be happening in Anna’s life but her personality is still a fascinating study. Essbaum, an award-winning poet, keeps the reader gripped with her skilful use of language; her precise, clear style gives the impression that she has thought carefully about every single word. Her descriptions often echo Maupassant; the first line of the book is: “Anna was a good wife. Mostly.”
There are no clues about events in Anna’s early life that might make her behave as she does. “The face one wears as an adult is a mask that is cut to fit in her youth,” is about as far as it goes. All we learn is that Anna’s parents died in a car crash when she was in her early twenties and she has no one she would consider close to her back in the States.
Her sexual encounters do little to fill her bottomless pit of loneliness and lack of fulfilment, but provided the publishers with the chance to promote the book as a literary Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s a bit like claiming that all meals taste the same. Anna’s liaisons may well be erotic but her emotional disengagement cloaks them with sadness.
It is more accurate to link her sense of isolation and unsatisfying marriage to an undemonstrative husband with the heroines of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary (Essbaum’s favourite book). The key difference is that Anna is living in the 21st century, when women are assumed to have so many choices in life. Whether she is letting the sisterhood down as well as herself is a question that Essbaum handles with confidence. She digs deeply into her heroine’s psyche with an unerring woman’s touch. It is partly what saves Anna from losing the reader’s sympathy.
Although at times I wanted to give Anna a wake-up-woman shake, about halfway through the novel I began to warm to her and to feel increasing sympathy for her inability to change her behaviour. She wants her husband to love her but in practice neither of them can relate emotionally with each other. Occasional aggressive sex is their substitute for natural intimacy. It is left to the reader to decide how much responsibility he bears for her feelings of isolation. A couple of women try to befriend her but Anna is unable to respond. She even finds it difficult to bond with her children, particularly Victor, her oldest son, who is described as “standoffish”, a characteristic that could easily be used about her. She is more drawn to Charles, the younger boy, whose warm, optimistic nature is the very opposite of her own.
The novel, a powerful cautionary tale, explodes two-thirds of the way through. “The trouble with mistakes is that they rarely seem like mistakes when they are made.” Anna is punished in the cruellest way possible and the ensuing unforeseen tragedy has horrific consequences. All sorts of people, including some she has barely acknowledged, try to rally round, but Anna is so shocked she barely notices.
Essbaum has written a gripping and moving first novel. I can’t believe it will be her last.