The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, a novel quite unlike anything I expected

We will, all of us, only be happy, she thinks, when we don’t need one another anymore. When we can live a life of our own, a life that belongs to us, that has nothing to do with anyone else. When we are free.

I thought, perhaps, that this novel might be along the likes of the ever popular, and oh so disappointing, thrillers such as The Girl on The Train. The nanny is a murderer, I thought, far from perfect at all. I did not realize, at first, that this novel has been translated from the French, nor that it won France’s prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt. (The U.S. cover pictured above has been criticized on Twitter, and rightly so, for leaving all that out.)

From the very first page we are shown a horrific scene:

The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer. The broken body, surrounded by toys, was put in a gray bag which they zipped shut. The little girl was still alive when the ambulance arrived.

You can see how it would be easy to assume you were reading a typical American thriller from this opening. But very quickly, the story veers off from what would seem American, but is clearly French as it goes far beyond the external situation.

The parents live in a tiny apartment in Paris. Myriam is a lawyer, but also a distraught and exhausted mother. Paul is a musician, but also a struggling and sometimes impatient father. Like every young professional couple they must balance the needs of their family with their professional aspirations, and something always seems to come up short.

Until Louise arrives. She is blonde, and diminutive, and able to perfectly manage two children and a small apartment, making it seem spacious and clean and joyful. She prepares delicious meals, helps create delightful birthday parties, and gives the children endless enjoyment with the stories she tells, the imagination she reveals.

It seems so perfect, but there is a thread of tension running underground. For one thing, it certainly can’t be as idyllic as it seems for we already know that one of the children is dead. For another, the tension around Louise mounts increasingly with every page.

Louise sleeps in the family’s apartment when they go to visit Myriam’s mother-in-law in the mountains. Louise imagines returning to Greece with the family on holiday, but as they prepare to come back to France she will announce that she is staying. Her unhappiness is palpable, and why shouldn’t it be? Nothing in her personal life resembles the lives of those she works for.

Euphoria gives way to days of dejection. The world seems to shrink, to retract, to weigh down on her body, to crush it. Paul and Myriam close doors on her and she wants to smash them down. She has only one desire: to create a world with them, to find her place and live there, to dig herself a niche, a burrrow, a warm hiding place. Sometimes she feels ready to claim her portion of earth and then the urge wanes, she is overcome by sorrow, and she feels ashamed even to have believed in something.

And why shouldn’t she feel so overcome? Her husband has died, forcing her to sell their home and face unsurmountable bills; her daughter has caused nothing but trouble and has now run away never to be seen again; her landlord charges exhorbitant rent for a studio apartment which is in great disrepair and even blames her for the fact that the shower has sunk into the rotting floorboards beneath. Louise can clean, and work endless hours creating a perfect life for her clients and facade for herself, but there is nothing in her own life that is beautiful, or easy, or promising. No one even loves her.

It is not a novel of mystery, or a thriller, or even crime as we know the murders from the very beginning. It is a story of desparation and isolation. It is the story of the true mother being more concerned about her position as a lawyer than she is about her children. It is a tragedy everywhere one looks.

Find an excellent review on 1st Reading’s Blog.