I like thrillers, so when I saw The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani on NPR’s Best Books of 2018 List, I was expecting something like Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. When I actually began reading, I found it wasn’t exactly as I was expecting. On the one hand, this is a good book. It is well written. There are imperfect characters, and universal themes of class and women’s roles that make you think. On the other hand, this book was pretty hard to read. It wasn’t so much of a thriller as watching dysfunction slowly turn into tragedy.
The story takes place in Paris. Myriam is desperate to go back to work as an attorney after she has kids, and her music producer husband is happy to support her. They are very choosy when it comes to who will look after their children, and they are delighted to find Louise after a number of interviews. Louise is good with the children. She also cooks and cleans, creatively setting up children’s birthday parties and creating entire dinner parties out of thin air. Myriam and Paul are the envy of all their neighbors.
“The baby is dead” is the very first sentence of this novel. The reader learns right at the beginning about what is to come at the end. The rest of the story is finding out how they got to that point. Knowing this information puts a shadow over every interaction between the nanny and the family. It comes very slowly as Louise acts oddly in one instance. In another, she lies to Myriam about what’s going on in the house. As the story progresses, the economic pressures on Louise increases, and she begins to unravel. Knowing what’s coming, it’s difficult to read. There are so many other possible outcomes besides murder and attempted suicide, but Louise cannot reach out for help and no one else cares enough to see what she’s going through.
Besides the dangerous downward spiral of Louise, Slimani includes some insightful commentary on the stress of being a working mother, the class differences inherent between employers and their nannies, as well as race.
One aspect I found challenging about this book, is that I never felt like I really knew the characters. Even with Slimani’s insightful commentary, they all still felt like strangers. This made the violence at the end easier to handle, but I was also less emotionally attached to the book. One review I read praised this aspect of the book because it mirrored Myriam and Paul’s relationship with Louise. They were inviting her into their home, but they never really knew her. The reader never really knows her either.
Like I said before, there’s a lot to like about this book. However, when I finished reading it, I just felt disturbed. I wondered why I chose to spend so much time on such a dark story. And I don’t even have kids! I can only imagine how horrifying this book would be if you were a working mother.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.