Why would a woman kill two children who, by all accounts, she adores? I mean, being a Nanny is hard, but, especially when you are working for such a fine family… who does that?
There is a lot of good in this book even if, at the end of the day it really wasn’t my favorite. I was on board up until the last third. I think part of it was that Slimani had basically built up a situation that was high stakes enough that it set an incredibly high level of difficulty when it came to wrapping it up in a really satisfying way. I basically closed the book and though, wait… that’s it? But, everything is still completely up in the air? I mean, I get not wanting everything tied up in a bow, but this really felt like the book ended about 100 pages before it should have.
Anyway, to the story.
Myriam and Paul Masses live in a very tiny but comfortable apartment in Paris. Myriam had put her legal career on hold first when their daughter was born and then extended the delay when their son came a long two years later. She is now tired of being a stay at home mom. She wants to be a lawyer, and she has been offered the perfect opportunity. Paul, a music producer, doesn’t really see why she can’t just be happy staying home, but finally agreed to look for a nanny, but “no illegals,… not too old, no veils, no smokers…” and Myriam’s friend Emma recommends from her own experience that, “if they have children of their own they should be in their homeland” so the nanny doesn’t have to go home to tend their own kids, they can stay late, work nights and really focus on your kids. This is where this book really shines. It really digs in to how domestic help, especially Nannies and other care givers, are viewed and treated by the mostly white, upper-middle class families that employ them. Myriam is mixed race, and, at least at the beginning, she finds herself having some awkward feelings about some of these attitudes and not wanting to perpetuate them, but at the same time, the once everything is set up life is just so EASY when she doesn’t have to worry about the kids.
They end up hiring Louise on a recommendation of a friend. Louise is a tiny, blonde woman who is a Paris native. She has stellar credentials and she really is the Perfect Nanny. Not only do the children love her, she cleans the house and prepares gourmet dinners for the whole family before quietly slipping out the door as if she were never there. Who could ask for more?
As time goes on, though, things don’t seem quite so cheery. There isn’t anything you can quite put your finger on at first, but all is not well. Louise loves the children very much, but she is worried, what if they don’t keep her around? Myriam knows Louise is perfect, but is starting to get a little too familiar with her and Paul? Making decisions she shouldn’t make?
The book swaps mostly between Louise and Myriam’s point of view (though narrated in the third person) done almost in a flashback-style with the officer investigating the murder/attempted suicide coming in to describe elements of the crime. It works, it’s a good device and it keeps the book moving at a good clip. It actually kind of reminds me of some of the Discovery Crime shows that go through the events in various people’s lives leading up to the critical moment, with a smooth voiced narrator providing insight and commentary throughout.
Also, this is such a good book about women and motherhood and there is no way to be “perfect”. Is Louise TOO obsessed with the kids? Well, don’t you want the Nanny to see them as her own? Isn’t that what you wanted? Is Myriam a “bad” mother because she works too much? Well, how else do you pay for the Nanny? Also, isn’t having a good career and doing well at something she loves what a good woman does? Isn’t that what she SHOULD model for her kids? SHOULD, HAVE TO, TOO MUCH, TOO LITTLE all those imperatives that women in all points of life experience and I love that the precarious, undefined line that women get pushed and pulled through when we do start talking about child care, careers and the grey areas where they crossover is used as the frame for this exploration.
Also, Paul is a fucking putz. He really is the most amazing representation of Mediocre White Man ever. He isn’t cruel or mean, but he is snide and just can’t understand why others can’t just see the world the way he does. He’s not racist or a misogynist, not at all, but I mean, why can’t Myriam just be happy staying at home with the kids? He makes enough money. Plus a Nanny? I mean, I guess if they MUST, but, like, you need to be careful, you know, you don’t want anyone who’s illegal or too big a “risk” culturally. No offense, you know… And while I kind of rolled my eyes every time he walked in at the very same time you can see that he is exactly the kind of dude who is viewed as, “charming, assertive, talented, a real catch. Myriam is so lucky!” I even get why Myriam loves him, but it’s like when your good friend’s boyfriend is… fine. Like, you’d never tell her to dump him, there’s nothing wrong with him, but at the same time you think she could do better.
My only real issue is there are some gaps in the plot and a couple of people who are kind of added in in a way that makes them SEEM very important, but then it doesn’t go anywhere, which is kind of confusing, at least to me. We hear a little bit about Louise’s daughter, even one chapter talking about where she is now, etc. but it never really seems to come into play. It fills in Louise’s backstory, yes, but by the end the passage felt tacked on, like it had been hinting at something that never materialized. There are a couple of places where this kind of thing happened. I think if the rest of the book weren’t so good, and the majority of the plot so tight, these weird little sidebars and kind of weird half-ending might not have annoyed me as much.