Have you ever peeked at the last chapter of a book you were reading to try to find out what happens at the end? I have. But in the international bestselling novel, The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, the end is the beginning. The first four words are “the baby is dead”. You go in knowing what the outcome is. So why keep reading? It’s simple, this sentence intrigues, excites, saddens and disgusts all at once. We want to know what type of monster could murder a child.
So it was for me when I happened to see The Perfect Nanny at my local library. I had heard of the book on a feminist news website and so I was quite happy to be reminded that this book was on my “to read” list. I had no idea how much this book would affect me.
After the murders, the book flashes back to the beginning where we meet Myriam and Paul Massé. Paul is a music producer working long hours in a studio. Myriam, Moroccan by birth, stays at home with the children. At first, she’s happy in her “cocoon”, but then theisolation and boredom, the “magnitude of the task”, start to consume her until she’s jealous and desperate. One day, while out shopping with the children, she bumps into a former classmate from law-school. He offers her a job in his law firm. She accepts and the search for a nanny begins.
They end up hiring Louise, a child-like, slightly grotesque career nanny that comes highly recommended. They really think they have found the perfect nanny. Louise comes into the apartment and “lets the sun in”. Everything is calmer, more orderly, she cooks, she cleans, she stays late. The children love her. She engrains herself deep into the family until they feel they cannot do without her. Louise thrives on people’s approval and she works hard to keep her place in the family.
Louise is like a child. She is physically small like a child and has the energy of a child. She is able to tell the children stories with a vivid imagination. She plays with them and they know “she is one of their own”. Louise lives in the world of children. The children love her because they are too young to realize her cruelty. When they play hide and seek, she hides herself so well that the children go into a panic while she watches from her hiding spot, never revealing herself despite their cries.
Soon we begin to realize that she is subtly insane. It is something hard to notice, but definitely there. The cruel games with the children are our first clue. Louise also hates to waste food, saving even small scraps. Myriam finds this endearing at first but then finds herself sneaking things into the trash only after Louise has gone home for the night. One evening, she throws away a whole chicken carcass and Louise finds it the next morning. She and the children eat the putrid corpse, pulling it apart, piece by piece until it is nothing but a skeleton. She gives the children Fanta pops to wash down the decaying flesh. That evening, Myriam finds the dead bird, picked clean on the table.
Paul and Myriam decide to start looking for a new nanny, but it doesn’t happen soon enough. They have ignored the danger signs because Louise is so helpful and convenient. Besides, how could she be dangerous if the children love her so much?
The Hidden Truth
What is the book really about, though? One thing, it’s a commentary on the world of women. Louise sees a woman sunbathing on a boat and cannot stop staring at her. She is “consumed by the sun, like a piece of meat thrown on the embers.” This is a metaphor for womanhood. Women are always on display. We must be perfect, perfect mothers, perfect workers, perfect nannies. We must be beautiful and well-kept. This perfection is a lot of pressure. And with it comes the shame and guilt when we cannot possibly live up to society’s expectations.
The book is also a commentary about isolation. First Myriam is isolated in her motherhood. She solves her problem by returning to work. She gives her problem to Louise. “Locked up in the Massés apartment, she (Louise) sometimes feels she is going mad.” Louise is jealous of those beautiful women with somewhere to be. She often imagines herself as important, on her way to some interesting place. But in reality, she is the nanny, nothing like Myriam now.
She is desperate at 4 pm to get out of the apartment and into the world where she finds herself in the company of the useless members of society. Those forgotten people who do #nothing, who create nothing.
My Personal Opinions
I read this book in one day. Slimani’s storytelling abilities kept me wanting to know more. I needed to know what kind of monster kills children. I couldn’t stop myself. And when I was finished and knew all of Louise’s secrets and what happened to make her kill the children, I went back and read it again, this time pausing to reflect between chapters, finding myself in Myriam, and even a little bit in Louise.
Slimani is a mother of two children. Perhaps only a mother could understand the relentless, mind-numbing boredom of motherhood. Her character, Myriam, has a shameful observation as she watches Louise care for her children. “We will, all of us, only be happy, she thinks when we don’t need one another anymore. When we can live a life of our own, a life that belongs to us, that has nothing to do with anyone else. When we are free.” There is a lot of truth in this profound statement. Louise herself dreams of a time when she doesn’t have anyone to look after. I think we all long for this, even if only fleetingly.
About the Author…
Erin is a travel-loving friendly introvert that lives in Europe. She has an undergraduate degree in Russian Studies from Grand Valley State University and a Master of Arts in Russian Literature and Language from SUNY at Albany. Originally from Michigan, she now spends most of her year in Switzerland. She loves art, history, art history, music, cats, vegan food, and speaking out about injustices. She has three adorable children and one feisty feline. Erin joined the team at The Quiet Nonsense to get reacquainted with technology and gain editing and writing experience. Someday she would like to start her own blog or do professional editing.