Books – Familiar and Not

In “The Perfect Nanny,” Leila Slimani crafts a thriller, a horror movie plot from the everyday world of working parents and children’s caretakers. To be judgmental about Slimani’s characters, you’d have to be pretty perfect yourself, having never done anything regretful, having never been seduced by an opportunity and slipped into some possibility that initially feels comfortable and provides so much, but proves inescapable and dangerous.

The first page reveals the horror toward which the book heads, but that doesn’t stop anxious, frantic reading to find out why. Reader’s knowledge makes you long to shout out in the middle, please stop this, but Slimani’s fine writing ensnared me.

Parisian parents, Paul and Myriam, have two young children, Adam and Mila. Myriam, a lawyer with much unrealized promise, stayed home to care for Mila, and 18 months later, Adam. It’s hard. Eventually, “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. With each passing day, she felt more and more desperate to go out for a walk on her own. Sometimes she wanted to scream like a lunatic in the street. They’re eating me alive, she would think.”

Her abandoned career offers escape – hence the nanny search and miraculous discovery of Louise. Soon, “When Myriam gets back from work in the evenings, she finds dinner ready. The children are calm and clean, not a hair out of place. Louise arouses and fulfills the fantasies of an idyllic family life that Myriam guiltily nurses. She teaches Mila to tidy up behind herself and her parents watch dumbstruck as the little girl hangs her coat on the peg.”

Louise grows ever more “invisible and indispensable.“ “It’s never clearly stated – they don’t talk about it – but Louise patiently builds her nest in the middle of the apartment.”

And Slimani patiently builds our awareness of these lives – the world of engaging work – the law, the hip-hop music scene – colliding with the unstable world of the nanny and the claustrophobic world of small children. “Parks, on winter afternoons. The drizzle scatters dead leaves. The icy gravel sticks to the children’s knees.”

I keep asking myself if I’m glad I read this book. Yes, because it is so fine as a novel and as a recording of a cultural moment, but I don’t like to think about it.

Because I read that Slimani was reading it, and maybe looking for an antidote to her book, I read Brit Bennett’s “The Mothers: A Novel.”

The book is about all sorts of mothers, devoted mothers, mothers who disappear, mothers who terminate the possibility, but the title refers to a sort of Greek chorus of church ladies at the Upper Room Chapel, “prayer warriors,” who address the reader directly at the beginning of most chapters. They pray for what needs prayer, make blankets and socks for comfort, and they gossip. In the very beginning they reveal the secret at the heart of this novel and their regret: “All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we’d taken a moment to swish this one around in our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season. But we didn’t.”

In her senior year of high school, 17-year old Nadia Turner, a smart and beautiful black girl, loses her mother to suicide. She gets involved with the pastor’s son Luke, a handsome football player, career ended by a bad tackle, “Bones, like anything else, strong until they weren’t.” Providing the third point in a triangle is Aubrey Evans, motherless by abandonment and willingly embraced by the engulfing church community. Connections between the points shift by choices made.

This book offers pronouncements about motherhood: “She was not a mother but she had a mother’s gift of rushing to the worst possible outcomes.” “A mother would move toward a crying child, not away. Her mother would’ve held her and absorbed her tears into her own body.” “A daughter grows older and draws nearer to her mother, until she gradually overlaps her like a sewing pattern. But a son becomes some irreparably separate thing.”

The Southern California setting helps this seem a warmer book – ocean beaches, sunshine, wildfire season, and Camp Pendleton boys – it couldn’t be further from the winter-dark Paris neighborhood of “The Perfect Nanny.” But both books pose questions facing women – and men.

We watch the characters live with their choices and wonder about our own.

8 thoughts on “Books – Familiar and Not

  1. Oh, those both sound intriguing! For a lighter look at the world of the nanny, try THE NANNY DIARIES — from a nanny’s point of view.

  2. The world of mothering and care-taking is so fraught with anxiety, boredom, love, ambiguity. It was wonderful to read your thoughtful insights about these two books, and to understand why they might be worth reading. And your drawing is the perfect anecdote to the dark cloud that hovers over me when I think about that perfect nanny. I don’t know how the book ends, but my mind, of course, has “a mother’s gift of rushing to the worst possible outcomes.”

    • Yes – that’s a perfect definition of maternal anxiety. And the book is the very worst thing you can imagine, and you learn that in the first line. Two friends have said oh I don’t think I can read that. I get it.

  3. I, too, don’t want a dark nanny book stalking my not quite awake self at 3am. The Mothers intrigues with its broader canvas: One of my friends reminded me that she’d read that when we’re young and with children we wonder what we have done to our lives! As much as we love them. our culture’s choices ,seemingly draconian, ask us to consider and reconsider everything that is their lives under the magnifying glass of ours. I’m in a memoir writing group with seven members, women and men: each of us has sketched a troubled mother, an unhappy mother. Worse for these women in the McCarthy witch hunt fifties. I rejoiced with my mother when she could return to teaching high school literature. I was twelve and my twin sisters, nine. I am forever grateful for her sharing her love of reading with us all her life. And, I’m glad her intelligence and her skills at teaching could find a larger community to inspire. We never had babysitters or nannies because we had our grandparents next door and then, within our home, until they died.

    • A therapist once told us that it was always a wicked stepmother because mothers always carry the cultural expectations. And now it’s crazy complicated! I think you’d like The Mothers-

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