The Perfect Nanny
By Leila Slimani
Translated by Sam Taylor
2018 Penguin Books $16
A few hours after I finished reading The Perfect Nanny, French-Moroccan writer Leila Slimani’s new international bestseller about a working mother’s worst nightmare, I ran into an acquaintance at the ice rink where I’d brought my kids for a get-out-of-the-house outing. She’d had the same idea.
She stood in the changing room, looking out on the rink, holding a thick stack of papers. From that position she could, theoretically, both work and observe her three kids. Behind her on a bench was another three-inch stack of work papers, and, she said, “boxes full at home.” It was a Saturday, but she was behind. I suppose you would be if you were the mother of three young children and also an attorney with Skadden, the fourth biggest law firm in the world, whose New York offices span 26 floors at 4 Times Square. She’s handling five cases at the moment, one of which will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Every few minutes, one of her kids came trudging in for a lace tightening, or a hug, or a break. I was surprised to hear, when she was packing up to leave, that she’d gotten through 20 pages in two hours. I was unsurprised to hear that The Perfect Nanny is on her to-read list.
The story is not easy to categorize. Solicitous attention to weary, multi-tasking mothers quickly gives way to solicitous attention to their weary help. I might describe The Perfect Nanny as sharing the suspenseful rhythm of The Girl on the Train with the sensibility of Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women and the tone, at the start, of some of my own diary entries from 9 years ago, when I was the mom of two girls under two.
But this is not a whodunit thriller; the first line is “The baby is dead.” By the end of page two, readers are clear who’s killed him. Slimani’s book originated with the heartbreaking real life case of a nanny in Manhattan who stabbed her two- and six-year-old charges in their bathtub, in October, 2012. As with that case, the “perfect” nanny had been having financial problems, and had recently lost an apartment. Like the real life nanny, Slimani’s creation — Louise — was by all appearances a devoted and attentive caregiver.
Although this story is about far more than the death of a baby, I don’t think this book will make as big a splash in the U.S. as it has abroad. As Lauren Collins of the New Yorker wrote in her profile of Slimani, the subject matter is, for many of us, “a non-starter.” Infanticide is “so unmentionable you fear you are tempting the fates by mere proximity.” (The original French book was called Chanson Douce, soft song, or lullaby, in French; presumably the American publisher thought his audience wouldn’t appreciate that degree of irony.)
What Slimani offers readers in lieu of lurid answers to the what, where, and who of the crime is an engrossing, suspenseful, painfully realistic answer to the question, “How could this woman be driven to kill?”
Professional, educated, middle class mothers will find common cause with Myriam, from whose perspective of The Perfect Nanny is told until about page 55, at which point the focus shifts subtly, then abruptly, away from her. But to start off it’s all about Myriam, who’s recently distinguished herself in law school, and lives in a comfortable flat in the 10th arrondissement of Paris with her husband Paul. Baby Mila comes along, and another two years later, Adam. Then “time started to drag; the clocklike perfection of the family mechanism became jammed.” Myriam’s world shrinks, mirroring the shrinking world Louise experiences at the end, moving only from washing machine to living room, from kitchen to bathroom, when she starts to truly go mad.
At the start, though, “Myriam became gloomy. She began to hate going to the park. The winter days seemed endless. Mila’s tantrums drove her mad, Adam’s first burblings left her indifferent….Sometimes she wanted to scream like a lunatic in the street.”
She’s offered a job, and as she puts up notices around her neighborhood, Myriam “is awaiting this nanny as if she is the savior, while at the same time she is terrified by the idea of leaving her children with someone else. She knows everything about them and would like to keep that knowledge secret.” (Yes, this is a familiar push-pull, which, I find, does not really weaken the older the children get.)
Then she finds Louise, who is described only as white, without nationality or religion. It’s made clear elsewhere, though, and in great detail, that her fellow Parisian nannies are dark-skinned, many Muslim, often living without papers.
Once Myriam is truly back at work, having handed over all home-related duties to Louise, the point of view shifts to the nanny, and The Perfect Nanny becomes a very different story. Slimani has a light, courageous touch with touchy issues of class. The author herself was born and raised in Morocco to a well-off family, but she is able to inhabit the anxieties of her creation Louise, a simple, struggling woman whose husband’s death left her in impossible debt, whose long lost daughter could be dead or alive.
What starts out as a tale about the travails of a professional working mother, blessed with the mundane luxury of a hot bath in the evening, transforms into one about the travails of a working class nanny whose apartment’s shower collapses into a rotten floor, leaving her to wash in the sink. These differences are shameful, for both parties, as their lives merge. When Louise has settled thoroughly into the family, a chapter ends with this passage: “When she [Myriam] goes shopping, for herself or for her children, she hides the new clothes in an old cloth bag and only opens them once Louise has gone.”
Is this is a new sort of acknowledgement, for both fiction and nonfiction? I was instantly reminded of a recent New York Times story, “What the Rich Won’t Tell You,” excerpted from Rachel Sherman’s new book, Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence, in which well-off people she interviews, who refused to be named, describe similar behaviors, ripping price tags off new pieces of furniture so the help can’t see how much they’ve spent.
As Sherman puts it, this “silence allows for a kind of ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ stance. By not mentioning money, my interviewees follow a seemingly neutral social norm that frowns on such talk. But this norm is one of the ways in which privileged people can obscure both their advantages and their conflicts about these advantages.”
Perhaps Rue la Fayette is just as uneasy as Main Street.
The most interesting insights Slimani offers are those that address, and so begin to clarify, these hard, weird effects of unequal status. When the family goes on vacation to Greece, and brings Louise along, it’s an opportunity for Paul, while teaching her how to swim, to discover that his children’s nanny is also a human being with body parts. As he holds her in the water, “An idiotic thought flashes through his mind and he laughs inwardly. ‘Louise has a bottom.’ ”
Paul is just as ambivalent, and, ultimately, resentful, as his wife about the dynamics of the master-servant relationship. “His parents had raised him to detest money and power, and to have a slightly mawkish respect for those ‘below’ him…..He had never given orders. But Louise had turned him into a boss.” Forced into that position, his ugliest side emerges. “He hears himself giving his wife despicable advice. ‘Don’t make too many concessions, otherwise she’ll never stop asking for more,’ he says, widening his hands apart.”
A chapter toward the end, which I assumed would be headed back into thriller mode, describing the day of the crime, is instead given over almost entirely to describing the backgrounds and work lives of Louise’s peers at the park. (Louise’s final breakdown and its aftermath take place in the final eight pages.) Wafa is one of these peers, who started out giving massages to an old Frenchman in Casablanca, and then pays enormous sums to marry a French citizen. Sitting together on a park bench, chatty Wafa relates her story, “the details of a life that will never be recorded.”
Well, at least that much is no longer true.