Anna is a passive woman. She blames everything wrong with her life on this one flaw. It’s a passivity that controls everything, from the decisions she makes (or fails to make), to her desperate longing to believe in predestination (she doesn’t have to choose!), to her detachment from Swiss culture, to the way she gives herself up effortlessly to every one of her desires. An American expat living in Switzerland, she is a mother of three and endures a joyless, passionless marriage. She is depressed and lonely and suffocated by her misery. So she self-medicates the only way she knows how: by self-destructing. By having sex with men who are not her husband.
This is a book about affairs. There is sex. There is a lot of sex. It’s not the cliché type I would imagine romance novels are made of. It’s crude. It’s vulgar. It’s dirty. It’s graphic. Essbaum doesn’t try to pretty up the language. Anna’s sexual encounters are charged with aggression and desperation; they are rough, gluttonous, joyless, and famished. A while ago, I wrote a review of Water for Elephants in which I said I didn’t think the sex scenes were necessary. Here, although obscene, they seem to be. They serve to embody the very nature of Anna’s pursuits: bottomless, ravenous, and motivated by a hunger that is never satiated.
You may be wondering: if you knew this was a book about affairs and would naturally contain sex-related scenes – why’d you pick it up in the first place? Here’s my honest answer: First, I didn’t know how graphic they’d really be. Second, I picked this book up because I wanted to befriend an adulterer. I wanted to enter her house, to see the pots and pans piled on her sink, to feel the cracks in her walls, to hear the dripping of her leaky faucets, to smell the stench of bulging bags of unemptied trash. I wanted to sit at her table and see her fiddle with her ring, to see her lips quiver and hear her voice crack while saying “this is why, Ronia, this is why. Do you understand?”
With this welcoming into Anna’s life, I grew frustrated with and pitiful of her, the way you might grow frustrated with and pitiful of a child who trips and falls and lays on the floor crying for hours, refusing to pick himself up. But Anna doesn’t think she can pick herself up, and the times she’s tried, she finds herself face down on the ground again. She is miserable, empty, hopeless, friend-less, selfish, defensive, and guarded. She yearns for change, but her passivity precludes any possibility of making good decisions. So she settles for a secret life hidden behind her own lies and delusions.
Though this book made me uncomfortable, I’m grateful for it and haunted by it. It pointed me to deeper truths and reminded me of the utter hopelessness of searching for fulfillment in all the wrong places; of living a life steered by misguided pursuits and disordered desires. Here are the major truths that resonated with me most:
First, psychoanalysis is great at defining problems but poor at providing the right solutions. Anna’s conversations with her psychoanalyst are dispersed throughout, giving us a deeper dive into Anna’s psychosis and the root of her brokenness. Anna remains guarded and never fully opens up to the Doktor, but the Doktor has Anna all figured out. When it comes to prescribing the appropriate methods of healing, the Doktor doesn’t seem to have the right answers. (Eg.: She suggests signing up for German classes to get Anna engaged with life in Switzerland. Anna does so. Anna finds a new lover.)
Second, affairs are never a good idea. Extramarital sex is empty.
Third, everyone is searching for God. Both Anna and her author. They both realize that the existence of emptiness within a person validates the very necessity of a filler. And sex is a bad filler. Adrenaline-rushing affairs are bad fillers. “Versions of love” are bad fillers. Marriage is a bad filler. Kids are bad fillers. Anna is questioning, constantly asking her husband, her lovers, her psychoanalyst whether they believe in God. Whether they believe in heaven. She wants (needs) something to hope in, some semblance of goodness and relief to cling to, a reassurance that something or someone can save her. All her life, nothing she’d turned to had been been able to provide this (“so many failsafes, all of them failing”). Even more, she wants (needs) real love: “Anna thought, If love is not infinite or eternal? Then I want nothing of it.‘” At the end of the novel, she is left completely deserted at a moment in which she needs someone the most. “And then she thought again that failsafes sometimes fail. Love is not a given. She had been wrong about every man she loved or said she loved. She’d been wrong about everything.” So many failsafes, all of them failing. Ultimately, everything she had banked her love and life on had disintegrated as sand beneath her feet.
And what was all this about predestination? Why is Anna so desperate to know it’s true? During this final moment of complete despair, she walks into a church and asks a priest to validate the belief. He doesn’t. He tells her he doesn’t believe in it. Anna is utterly dejected. Is it because she wants to know her pain is somehow purposeful? Chosen for her, for some strange and perverted good reason? That her lot was decided for her? Is it because in her passivity she wants so badly to believe she’s not responsible for her actions?
All of this led me to wonder about the author. Essbaum knows emptiness. She knows the futility of vain pursuits. Her language is bursting with the knowledge of experience – Anna’s emotions are raw, uncensored, pathetic in their desperation, yet real. Really, really, real. The author knows. She knows there is an emptiness and a depravity that only a God could fix.
And she does know! In an interview, Essbaum made this statement: “I think this is a deeply religious book. […] Anna doesn’t claim to be a believer – but I do.” Of Anna, she says: “She may not be likeable. She doesn’t need to be. But she desperately needs to be loved. And not in the way that she’s been seeking it. I think I love her. We should love her. And not because she merits it. But because she doesn’t.” And finally, about the sex, she says: “Why the pairing of sexual and religious expression seems wrong to our post-modern American ears, I think, is because we’re all direct inheritors of a Puritan heritage that disdains human physicality…in lieu of pursuits of the spirit alone.”
So, with this view of theology coloring the story, we are left to ask: does Anna ever get punished? Is she ever saved? I won’t give it away. But I will say this: the ending is satisfying, in the cruel, corrupt, and ruthless way in which this world tends to operate. It’s not an ideal ending, and it isn’t merciful, but it’s real.