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Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum
Book hangover. Readers, you know what I'm referring to. The condition where you read something so good that you have trouble getting into anything else for a while, and even when you do, you're comparing it to 'that book.' I am still experiencing this a couple months after reading Jill Alexander Essbaum's exquisite debut novel,Hausfrau. Widely and cringingly described as "Madame Bovary meets Fifty Shades of Grey" (shades of the former perhaps, but certainly not the latter--sorry debaucherous book clubs!), 'Frau' follows Anna Benz, an American living with her husband and children in suburban Zurich. She is isolated and unraveling, and not, as many readers have pointed out, terribly likable as a result. Here, Ms. Essbaum talks about why, despite the unlikability factor, we still can't get enough of these "not nice ladies."
When I was six or seven years old my Sunday School class put on a play. The plot is long lost to memory, but as I recall it was a cautionary tale kind of thing, a do this, don't do that skit meant to school us in the ways of Christian principles. My teacher cast me in the role of "Lady of the Evening." I wore a silky blue kimono and sashayed around the room flicking imaginary ash from the tip of a paper cigarette, all the while swirling an empty highball. The only prop my Debbie-Do-Right counterpart had to work with was a beatified smile. Clearly I got the better end of that deal.
But I was a good girl. Still am. Mostly. Most of us, I think, are good. For the most part and for most of the time. We pay our taxes and brush our teeth and obey traffic laws. We operate within a system governed by personal and collective values, an enterprise of order built on a single principle: bad behavior carries consequence. Pilfer money from the till and you'll lose your job. Cheat on your wife and you may be cutting fat alimony checks in the near future. Keep at those donuts, Kid, and your skinny jeans won't ever fit again.
It seems that lately there's been a lot of conversation on the topic of unlikeable female characters in novels. Women we can't stand. Women who do things we don't stand for. Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, and Helen Walsh's The Lemon Grove and Paula Hawkin's The Girl on the Train all feature women who act on impulse, who connive, who manipulate and scheme. Who drink too much. Who sleep with their stepdaughter's boyfriends. Who murder.
These are not nice ladies.
And we can't get enough of them. Why is that? Is it the thrill of vicarious living? Maybe, but some shenanigans just aren't worth the joyride. Is it that we like to gauge our deeds by these characters misdeeds? I mean, I may be bad, but I'm not THAT bad, right? Or is it simply an issue of rubbernecking? Far better to watch someone else's life derail than live out our own train wreck.
I'm going to go a different way. I think we like to read about these characters because we are these characters. Rather, because we know that it is in us to become them. Sure, we're titilated and entertained and shocked. But as in the case of the Sunday School play, we're also warned. And in the hands of a skillful writer, our interactions with these characters become experiments in empathy. This is a very good thing, as it is especially important to understand the behaviors we don't condone; those are the most destructive. Some highballs are poured with poison. I've never swallowed strychnine. I don't have to. I've held the glass.
This is why we don't look away.