February 21st, 2018

book talk // the perfect nanny.

What makes a thriller? In my opinion, it’s fast pacing, exploitative scenarios (there will be an obsession, probably an affair, ultimately a murder), and a generically accessible title.

Aside from the title, The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani is none of those things. Therefore, anyone referring to The Perfect Nanny  as the “French answer to Gone Girl” is doing Slimani a distinct disservice.

The novel opens with two simple lines: “The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds.” Echoes of Hemingway. We know from the beginning that something terrible has happened, but the build is slow and so focused on the inner thoughts of each character that the reader comes up gasping for air, attempting to escape the confines of their minds. The characters, and their inner monologues, are so quietly unsettling, but also entrenched in domesticity and a charade of manners that I hesitate to ascribe the “thriller” label to this novel.

My biggest issue is with the American title — The Perfect Nanny indeed lends itself to a cheap psychological thriller (a la Gone Girl) whereas the French title: Chanson Douce actually means “sweet song” — which the British edition tried to capture in titling the translation Lullaby. America, as usual, missed the point. In this New Yorker article, John Siciliano, Slimani’s editor at Penguin, said, “I didn’t want to call it ‘Lullaby,’ because that sounds sleepily forgettable, and my goal is to reach a big commercial readership. We’re getting this book into places like Walmart and Target.” But, this novel is more understated than all that.

The Perfect Nanny dissects the subtleties of racism, classism, and sexism. Everyone in the novel wants. Myriam, the mother, wants to work, Paul, the father, wants his old, carefree life back, and Louise, the nanny, wants to be needed. Myriam, tired of giving up her freedom to be a slave to her children, convinces her reluctant husband Paul, who assumes she’s a blissful mother, to support her in going back to work. Necessitating the acquisition of a nanny for their two children. As they’re searching for the perfect nanny, Paul says, “Not too old, no veils, no smokers,” and if the nanny has children of her own, “it’s better if they’re back in the homeland” so she is able to devote herself entirely to their whims. Louise is perfect, but Slimani has given Louise, a doll-like blonde woman, the job of an immigrant to increase the obviousness of her fringe existence. Louise, despite her carefully arranged bun and Peter Pan collar, belongs no where. Her abusive husband is dead, her own daughter ran away, and the other nannies are suspicious of her haughty mannerisms. As Myriam and Paul aspire toward a specific upper-middle class existence, Louise becomes integral, but she also becomes their blind spot and their shame.

Slowly, and without anyone overtly noticing, the classism creeps in. When Myriam goes shopping, she hides the new clothes in an old cloth bag and only opens them once Louise has gone. “Paul congratulates her on being so tactful.” Myriam feels guilty about staying out late, but Paul insists, “That’s what Louise is for!” Slimani also probes the concept of motherhood in ways that make the reader squirm. Her description of a new mother in the park is particularly unsettling: “She carries her body of pain and secretions, her body that smells of sour milk and blood. This flesh that she drags around with her, which she gives no care or rest.”

Slimani explores the tender boundaries that, when shattered, cause people to break. Over the course of many months, Louise realizes she has never had a space to call her own, a place she hasn’t shared with others. She has nothing except debts and solitude. She looks at herself, Myriam, and the children — the precariously balanced existence they inhabit — “Someone has to die. Someone has to die for us to be happy,” she repeats to herself. But, again, Slimani does not offer us any concrete answers. There is no big thing that causes Louise to snap, instead it’s a thousand tiny injustices.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that, Slimani is only the 12th woman, ever, to win the prestigious (and historically sexist) Prix Goncourt prize. This award is initially what made me sit up and pay attention to her work, and I’m glad I did as I will be thinking about this book for months to come.

Rating: 5/5
Recommended For: anyone looking for an alternative to mainstream thrillers