To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy: All happy novels are alike; each unhappy novel is unhappy in its own way. Unless that novel is Hausfrau. Jill Alexander Essbaum’s decidedly unhappy debut novel has already been compared to a wide range of other books, from the classics (Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina) to contemporary best-sellers (Fifty Shades of Grey and Gone Girl) — and she doesn’t mind the comparison.
Essbaum’s protagonist Anna Benz — whose story, like Anna Karenina’s, begins on a train — is a housewife outside of Zurich who has lived there with her husband and children for almost a decade without learning the language. As she slides into depression, sexual dalliances become a way to escape from her drab life.
We caught up with Essbaum, an award-winning poet and native Texan, in advance of her novel’s March 17 debut. She currently teaches creative writing to graduate students at the University of California, Riverside.
TIME: Your book has been compared by critics and by your publisher, Random House, to 50 Shades of Grey, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and even Gone Girl. What do you make of that?
Essbaum: I think it’s pretty neat! So let’s unpack this. Some of my friends have said, “Aren’t you offended that it’s been [compared to 50 Shades]?” I said, “That book has sold well, why would I be offended?” Obviously I think it’s the sex that people are comparing, although mine has a little less bondage in it. The Anna Karenina comparison is, you know, there’s a huge nod to Tolstoy with the name [Anna], and I think with Gone Girl, mine’s not a thriller, but the word that keeps coming up is “domestic noir.” I thought that was the coolest, I’d never heard it before, and I like that it’s about the underbelly of the inner workings of a household.
But Madame Bovary is key here, because this book is inspired by Madame Bovary, actually. I should be pretty emphatic: This isn’t a retelling, it’s an homage, it’s a nod. I’m intensely fascinated with Flaubert’s use of language and how he was always on the lookout for that exact right word, what a perfectionist he was in his craft — there’s just no loose threads in his writing. Because I come from a poetry background … the language was very important to me, so when people compare it to Flaubert, I understand that they’re comparing the character and the set-up, but I also really hope that they’re comparing the way that it’s being told and the language as well.
Anna is captivated by grammar and particularly homonyms. What draws you as a writer to all these homonyms?
My first love was jokes and puns. I’ve been working on a joke book for years now, and it’s mostly puns. Puns are built upon misunderstandings, most of the time phonic misunderstandings. The homonyms and homophones and little nuances of meaning — What’s the difference beween shame and guilt? Regret and remorse? — and false cognates, the way that these things don’t mean the same thing and because there’s this giant gap between them, they mean both things. Language is one of the few ways that [Anna] expresses herself legitimately and truthfully. But she can’t do it to anybody else, it’s only in her own head, and it’s her native language. She can’t speak truth, she can only do it through these weird grammar rules. Which is sad to me.
People often say it’s hard to write sex scenes well, and this novel has a few. How did you approach that?
Well, a smart aleck answer just ran through my head and I let that one go. “Lots of research!” No, I’m kidding.
I’ve heard some advance praise and critique that the sex scenes are very realistic, but other people have said, “Well, maybe they’re a bit gratuitous.” I would like to defend them because I don’t think they’re gratuitous at all. That’s the only time she’s literally naked and absolutely vulnerable. It would be like writing a book about a drug addict but never show him taking drugs. It would be silly not to show how invested she was. If I just said, “And then she went to his apartment and they had sex,” that would be problematic.
That said, I think I know what’s going on when people read it. I didn’t realize this until I heard it on an audiobook — at first I was a little bit shocked. I hadn’t realized how forthright these scenes were. I think that maybe as readers we might be a little bit embarrassed, because it’s like we’ve walked into a room we’re not supposed to be in, because it’s too intense and too intimate.
One way a sex scene can go really south, really fast, is that everything can be told in euphemisms rather than more directly. I’m pretty lyric in a lot of my explanations, but I really tried to avoid euphemisms. We use a euphemism when we don’t want to say the real thing, because either it embarrasses us or it scares us, or we’re not comfortable with it, or maybe we’re lying about it. If I wanted to gloss over that — you know, “And then they did the deed, and the end,” well that’s a lie, because they didn’t “do the deed,” they did this aggressive, physical act that consumed her and afterward left her feeling this certain way that I hoped that I showed through this prose. It was really hard to write.
I’m surprised people thought it was gratuitous, because to me it did seem like a very big part of her character.
Well, not everybody. Some have mentioned that they find her a very unlikeable character, and that is a completely legitimate critique. She’s not very friendly. But like I said, I don’t know that it’s gratuitous, but I think it is really embarrassing.
One of the themes that I almost didn’t even pick up on until toward the end is religion. It’s very subtle in the book, but it does keep coming back.
I’m so happy you asked that, you’re the first person who’s brought that up. I brought it up a couple of times to people and they scratched their heads a little bit. It’s secondary maybe to the grammar and the fire, but I think that this is a very religious book. Especially since the last conversation that she has that makes her feel any kind of decent is with the priest. She’s looking for consolation in a lot of ways: she’s looking for consolation in the language — she can’t find it. She’s looking for consolation in the arms of men — she definitely can’t find that. Her marriage is not working, and she’s asking these big, spiritual questions that everybody asks at one time or another.
Do you have plans for another novel in the works?
I’m writing around something right now, maybe about basketball, my passion. I love NBA basketball. It would be a good excuse to go to more games.