At risk of sounding repetitive [as I’ve already mentioned it here, here, and here], I love books by French authors. Though this is an obvious generalization, I do find that where Americans are concerned with elegant prose, the French write in a straightforward, relatable manner. When I read a book, I’m not looking to be impressed by the words; I’d much rather be engrossed in the plot. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate a beautifully written passage [if you’re looking to be wowed by words, I cried my way through A Little Life just about this time last year, Kazuo Ishiguro is an absolute classic, and Fates & Furies was robbed of a Pulitzer], but there is something to be said for a book that holds its own without relying on extravagant language. There is truly nothing more chilling than a French thriller…and The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani is France’s latest chef d’oeuvre.
Originally titled Chanson Douce in France and released as Lullaby in the UK, The Perfect Nanny was inexplicably released with a decidedly campier title in the US this year, which accounted for my difficulty finding it in bookstores until this fact came to light. The Perfect Nanny is based on a true, incredibly tragic and gruesome story out of New York in 2009 [follow this link if you dare, but be warned]. Slimani moves the protagonists from New York to a wealthy neighborhood in Paris. At the outset of the book, the protagonist couple [the husband, Paul, a musician and wife, Myriam, a former lawyer] have decided to hire a nanny. Unable to cope with the banalities of stay-at-home motherhood, Myriam takes up a prestigious law job, leaving her two toddler children under the daily care of Louise, a nanny so miraculous she essentially becomes part of the family. Louise accompanies the family everywhere; from trips across the Seine to vacations to Greece, she becomes indispensable to the happiness of both parents and children. Louise’s intense devotion to the family is made all the more chilling by the fact that the book opens with Myriam discovering Louise in the bathroom, covered in the children’s blood, making no attempts to hide the fact that she is responsible for their deaths. Slimani starting with the climax is an incredibly effective tool in pushing the reader to read into even the subtlest of psychological clues that something is off with Louise.
Beyond the story remaining gripping throughout for its unsettling nature and stark, pointed prose, Slimani also skillfully weaves deeper themes throughout the narrative: specifically the isolation that comes with stay-at-home motherhood, and the unavoidable territorial awkwardness and socioeconomic tension that comes with a parent-caregiver relationship, which, in this case, ultimately drives Louise insane. The book is exactly the chilling, thought-provoking tale that you’d expect to win the Prix Goncourt and earn the author the offer of Minister of Culture to the French government—which, by the way, she rejected because ‘she didn’t want to feel beholden to anyone.’ As the French say: chic.