The Perfect Nanny
Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny was described as a “French Gone Girl”, and the French part made me curious. It has a strong sense of place, and I couldn’t put it down. However, the end was such a cop-out that my review will touch on why it dragged the grade down, so anyone who wants to avoid that spoiler might want to stop reading about halfway through this review. Everyone else – proceed.
The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer.
These are the first three sentences of the story, plunging readers straight into the horror. A mother comes home to her apartment on the Rue d’Hauteville to find both her children dead and their nanny bleeding out from slashed wrists. The story then goes back in time to Paul and Myriam Massé searching for a nanny, so I was hooked. You know what’s going to happen, but the story is about how and why such ordinary people descend into tragedy.
After the birth of her son, Myriam is offered a job and she welcomes the chance to use her law degree, not to mention have a little respite from the cocoon of caring for baby Adam and two-year-old Mila. She and Paul interview some unsatisfactory candidates – a Filipina who hasn’t seen her youngest child for ten years, an undocumented immigrant, etc. And then comes Louise.
Louise not only bonds with the children but applies herself to the Massies’ apartment with a workaholic zeal. She washes the curtains, cooks blanquette de veau, sews buttons back on to clothes. Though thin and doll-like in appearance, she’s stronger than she looks, and she never complains about working long hours – though there’s a reason for this.
At first Paul and Myriam find her wonderful, indispensable to the point where they take her on vacation with them to Greece. But this is the first crack in the perfection, because the differences between the haves and the have-nots become obvious here. Sharing a tiny room with the children, Louise lies awake listening to her employers having sex in the next room, and when they all go down to the beach, she finally confesses that she never learned to swim.
It gradually becomes clear even to the self-absorbed Massés that Louise is poor, though they don’t realize the extent of it. Her husband’s death left her with huge debts, she’s in tax arrears, and her landlord is harassing her. Work is an escape from the miserable conditions she lives in, to the point where on her day off, she puts on a nice dress and sits in her apartment on the off-chance that the Massés, who visit a restaurant each weekend, will invite her to go with them.
Her growing obsession is well-depicted, as is her fragile mental state. And the occasional moments of violence or bizarre behavior when someone goes against her sense of rigid flawlessness. I won’t go into detail, but there’s a chicken carcass that Louise takes out of the trash can and cleans with liquid soap, and this is as unnerving as the scene in Fatal Attraction with the pot bubbling on the stove. The story also shows Louise’s unhappy past, and there were times when I would have felt sorry for her if I hadn’t known what she was going to end up doing.
But this brings me to the spoiler. I was eager to read about what exactly led up to Louise snapping, and what would become of her and the Massés afterwards. The last chapter is told from the perspective of a captain of police waiting to interview Louise about how this happened.
And it stops there. The story literally ends there. No closure. It’s possible that the author wanted to show that in a tragedy like this, no one outside it really knows what happened, but I felt cheated. I don’t want to delve deeply into someone’s soul only to have the literary equivalent of a door shut in my face before I can take the final step inside.
But if you can overlook this, the book is well worth reading. The characters are wonderfully drawn and feel realistic (though readers should be aware that there are a few racist remarks), I loved the descriptions of Paris, and the writing is vivid.
Louise had never seen a moon like that before, a moon so beautiful it was worth lassoing.
I enjoyed reading The Perfect Nanny and was transfixed throughout – just going through it to find a quote made me sink back into the story – which made the letdown of the ending all the more disappointing. Readers should be aware of what to expect, but it earns a qualified recommendation and I’ll keep an eye out for other books by this talented author.