When I read Lauren Collin’s column, “Letter From France” in the January 1, 2018, New Yorker about the literary sensation Leila Slimani, a 35 year-old Moroccan woman (and long-time resident of Paris), has become in France, with the publication of her second novel, Chanson Douce (Sweet Song), soon to be published in the United States under the title The Perfect Nanny, I knew this was book I must read.
Slimani has won the Concourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, which counts its laureates Proust and Malraux. More often the prize goes to middle-aged white men, so the committee had broken its history, making Slimani the new face of French literature
When I was at the main branch of the Los Angeles Library downtown a few days later, I was able to put a reserve on the soon-to-be-released book, and thus became the first person in Los Angeles to read the library copy.
It’s a slender volume—only 278 pages. The Perfect Nanny is more than a psychological thriller—it depicts the lives of an ordinary, professional couple, Paul and Myriam, their two children, Mila and Adam, and their nanny, a frail-looking white woman named Louise. Ultimately, the nanny kills the children. The New Yorker article says that Ms. Slimani was inspired by a news item about a New York nanny who killed two children in her care.
The book begins with one of most memorable lines in all of literature: “The baby is dead.”
Slimani’s style is to write short, factual sentences that punctuate a given situation and accumulate the tension. She tells a dark story in a rather bleak, reporter-like style (think Hemingway or Hillebrand), describing Paul and Myriam’s decision to hire a nanny—Paul says they will hire no one “too old, no veils, no smokers.”
Louise soon makes herself indispensable—not only does she give the children excellent care, she also puts the apartment in order, cooking and cleaning, even mending. She is, in short, the perfect nanny.
Had I fewer responsibilities to tend to, I was so riveted that I would have read this book in one sitting…
I don’t mean to take anything away from Ms. Slimani’s enormous talent, but if she wanted to show the development that brought Louise to the execution of this horrible deed, I think she failed. In the actual story we are told that the nanny was upset at having to take on cleaning duties. In The Perfect Nanny Louise is worried that she may have outlived her usefulness to the family—so, she wants Myriam to have another child, as this would secure their need for her for many more years. Perhaps she was disturbed that this hasn’t happened. She obsesses over this child she wants her employers to have…
“She feels sure that Paul and Myriam don’t have enough time to themselves. That Mila and Adam are an obstacle to the baby’s arrival. It’s the children’s fault if their parents are never alone together.”
Louise is portrayed as a disturbed woman, but she doesn’t seem to possess a murderous rage within. And, we are not shown how she is lead to do away with the children she dearly loves. Furthermore, Louise is not stupid, so, surely, she would have understood the murder of the Massé children would hardly endear her to their parents—she would be about the last person they would hire to watch over a new child.
I may be a stickler for verisimilitude, but, ultimately, I don’t think Louise’s murder of them adds up. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this novel to all who would like to be spellbound by this highly unusual book.
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