The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani

I think I would have appreciated this more if I were French. There were hints of subtext that I could only guess at, nuances of race and class and prejudice that are foreign even to my broad background in the mores of American, Southeast Asian and British Commonwealth cultures. So I’m not sure if the point was for me to sympathize most of all with Louise, the murderous nanny, but that’s what I wound up doing.

This book is essentially a character study of the people at the heart of a terrible tragedy. Louise is the perfect nanny to Mila and Adam, the small children of Myriam and Paul Masse, a multiracial French couple living in Paris. Paul is the kind of guy who’s inherently bourgeois even as he pretends he isn’t, a music producer who loves the bohemian life when it suits him but really thrives in a conventional milieu. Myriam fought against her upbringing to become a gifted lawyer, but gave it up to have two children in fairly quick succession. When the joy of child-rearing loses its bloom, she decides that she wants to go back to work. Paul is dismayed, but agrees so long as they can find a competent nanny. Myriam doesn’t want to hire a fellow Arab, for fear of familiarity and as a conscious rejection of the background that gave her so much grief growing up.

Enter Louise. A poor native-born Frenchwoman down on her luck, she comes with wonderful references but has recently lost most of her family. While she begins as “just” the nanny, she soon proves herself an invaluable housekeeper and cook. Paul and Myriam are only too happy to exploit her talents, and willingly overlook some of her stranger behavior as part of their total unwillingness to learn anything about her outside of her utility to them. Do they suck? Absolutely. Do they deserve to lose their children? Absolutely not. But would their lives have been totally different had they extended to Louise the courtesy of treating her like a human being instead of an automaton to be paraded out as a measure of how lucky and privileged they were? You fucking bet.

Louise is not a well woman but the Masses don’t care, and that’s almost as much of a tragedy as the killings that a desperate, unbalanced Louise perpetrates. You’d think that I, as a work-from-home mom and minority citizen, would feel a kinship for Myriam’s struggles, but I only felt disdain for her prejudice against her own race and all the rest of her self-serving petite bourgeoisie affectations. I suppose it’s not a newsflash that matters of class transcend race but I did wind up spending a lot of this book wondering if I was supposed to feel as I did, which I’m not sure is the kind of unsettling feeling Leila Slimani was aiming to evoke in her readers. But, as I said, I think I would have understood it better were I more familiar with French culture, so I could at least understand the suitability of my own reactions.

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