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the complete review - fiction
The Perfect Nanny
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- French title: Chanson douce
- US title: The Perfect Nanny
- UK title: Lullaby
- Translated by Sam Taylor
- Prix Goncourt, 2016
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B : effectively unsettling, but pretty thin
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The NY Times Book Rev.
||24/1/2018 A Stuart Kelly
| Wall St. Journal
|The Washington Post
|World Lit. Today
Very well-executed, but not everyone won over
From the Reviews:
- "It satisfies every middle-class nightmare about the guilty relief of entrusting your screaming toddlers to other peopleís care. It will make a great film. Great literature it isnít." - The Economist
- "Its multiple appeal is clear from the first page: Slimaniís style, enhanced by Sam Taylorís graceful, unobtrusive translation, is calm, matter-of-fact and controlled, with only a hint of the deranged unravelling to come. And while the novel parades itself as a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit or a howdunnit, it is primarily a cool, dispassionate, and thoroughly uncomfortable look at class, culture and gender, particularly the eternally knotty subject of motherhood: its loaded, sometimes leaden obligations and intense dichotomies.
" - Catherine Taylor, Financial Times
- "(E)in Sittenbild, wie mit dem Rasiermesser ausgeschnitten." - Sandra Kegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "(W)hat raises this why-dunnit way above the usual killer-nanny thriller is that itís also a fantastically well-wrought portrait of social, economic -- and ultimately moral -- distress and deprivation. In a series of flashbacks so vivid that Iím reluctant to call them that, Louiseís brutal, sometimes mentally unhinged past comes slowly to light. (...) Whether you believe this -- and whether the crime ultimately makes sense -- will depend on how convinced you are by Slimaniís prose (translated from the French by Sam Taylor). But what sublime prose it is. What appears at first to be a conventionally enough told tale soon gathers velocity, taking more and more risks as it gallops between viewpoints and tenses, introducing new and pungent characters to illuminate the narrative and seem absolutely relevant for a page or so before disappearing again. Some might find this tiresome, but I found it thrilling." - Julie Myerson, The Guardian
- "Tiré d’un fait divers, un double infanticide dans les beaux quartiers de New York en 2012, ce roman happe le lecteur avec une force étonnante qui tient autant à la maîtrise de sa narration qu’à son écriture sèche, clinique, précise." - Stéphanie Dupays, Le Monde
- "Erzählerisch raffiniert treibt Slimani nun die Entlarvung doppelter moralischer Standards sarkastisch auf die Spitze. (...) Die Wirklichkeit ist komplexer, umso mehr müsste es die Literatur sein. Slimani macht es sich nicht nur zu einfach mit diesem präzis verzahnten und messerscharf komponierten Roman. (...) Das Beklemmende an dem Roman sind nicht die toten Kinder, und es ist nicht die Unfassbarkeit einer Tat. Vielmehr irritiert die penetrant vorgeführte Unausweichlichkeit der Ereignisse." - Roman Bucheli, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "Slimani writes devastatingly perceptive character studies." - Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
- "Esta espléndida novela envuelve al lector desde el principio, con su atmósfera sofocante y sus personajes perfectamente configurados y analizados." - Jesús Ferrero, El País
- "This clever, eerie novel will leave some readers reeling. Who did commit an act of unspeakable horror? Who is the real victim? That it leaves the reader on a suspended chord is why it is a worthy winner of the Prix Goncourt. That it uses the conventions of the crime novel to analyse exclusion, mobility, poverty and privilege is admirable; that it does so while still being subtle and sophisticated is more than admirable." - Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman
- "So, is Lullaby anything more than journalistic opportunism ? The answer is yes, because Slimani makes Myriam such an unsympathetic character. Her complexity is the best element of the novel. (...) It is not a great literary achievement, but Slimani horribly illuminates the darkest fears of a great many parents of small children anxiously trying to get on with their lives." - David Mills, Sunday Times
- "It is fitting, of course, that this woman who lacks agency is also denied articulacy, but as readers we do miss this insight into her psyche. Slimaniís taut prose also occasionally becomes hysterical (...). Lullaby is, however, consistently spell≠binding: a supremely confident and provocative novel that deserves a similar success to Gillian Flynnís bestseller." - Alex Peake-Tomkinson, Times Literary Supplement
- "Despite its packaging, The Perfect Nanny is less a thriller than a sociological study, and it doesnít shock so much as usefully destabilize current bourgeois customs of parenthood. Brilliantly observed phenomena capture the times. (...) Ms. Slimani is brilliantly insightful about the peculiar station nannies assume within the households of working families, at once intimate and subservient." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
- "The book aspires toward the taut elegance of that classic nanny nightmare tale, Henry Jamesís The Turn of the Screw, and, in language and complexity, it comes pretty darn close. (...) As unflinching as Slimani is in her descriptions of the grisly damage that can be inflicted on the human body, sheís just as assured in assessing mental and emotional bruises and breakages" - Maureen Corrigan, The Washington Post
- "At one level, Leila Slimaniís novel could be read as a sententious morality tale, faulting Myriam, especially, for privileging her career and thereby renouncing her responsibilities as a mother. But this is only one possible interpretation of Slimaniís tightly constructed and often-enigmatic narrative." - Edward Ousselin, World Literature Today
- "Slimani schreibt in einer klaren, manchmal nüchternen, dann wieder eindringlichen und dichten Sprache, mit der sie sich als allwissende Erzählerin in die verschiedenen Perspektiven ihrer Figuren begibt." - Carola Ebeling, Die Zeit
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The opening line sets the disturbing stage even for readers who somehow manage to come to The Perfect Nanny (published in the UK as Lullaby) without knowing what it's about: "The baby is dead".
And even if small comfort quickly follows -- "The doctor said he didn't suffer" -- it's only a brief respite; the horror expands in the opening paragraph with the next victim -- she struggled, "Her throat was filled with blood. Her lungs had been punctured".
Not a pretty picture.
Yes, The Perfect Nanny would seem to be every parent's worst caregiver-nightmare: a novel about a child minder who brutally kills the little ones.
The short first chapter sums up what happens: "Adam is dead. Mila will be soon too".
As to the nanny, (the here still unnamed) Louise: she tried to cut her wrists but botched that job.
As Slimani writes, in one of the book's best lines: "She didn't know how to die" (which is unfortunately followed by one of the worst: "She only knew how to give death").
The novel then jumps back to the beginning, and begins the dark path -- now foreboding at every turn, of course -- to the awful act and this conclusion.
Indeed, it's all about the getting there, then; as to the act itself, well, Slimani is pretty good with elision and skirting around the edges of her story, and she largely manages to avoid much more description of the actual, final deed; the closest she gets to it after the gory opening, in the closing chapter, has a stand-in staging the crime in a police recreation, leaving most of it to the imagination.
The Perfect Nanny is meant to be the story of how she -- the nanny -- and the family she works for got to that devastating place.
Readers can't help but wonder, all along now: were they all on this course all along ? Did her employers miss some signs ? Did they, or the kids, or something else push her over the edge ? Or was she always right there at that edge already ?
The story begins simply enough: Paul and Myriam Massé are the parents of toddler Mila and baby Adam,
Myriam has wearied of being a stay-at-home mom, and when the opportunity comes up to restart her career as a lawyer she wants to take it.
So they need a nanny.
Myriam insists: "No illegal immigrants" (and: "not too old, no veils and no smokers").
And not a North African -- Myriam: "has always been wary of what she calls immigrant solidarity", and has distanced herself from her own roots (refusing to speak Arabic with her children, for example).
Louise looks to be a godsend, and they're thrilled with how things work out -- especially as both Paul and Myriam's careers take off, and they can much more comfortably lose themselves in their jobs and long hours (with the occasional pangs of guilt).
Louise is devoted and hard-working.
She does insinuate herself into the lives of the Massés, going beyond the call of duty, cleaning up, cooking, and occasionally sleeping over.
"Louise never neglects anything. Louise is scrupulous".
And: "Louise becomes ever better at being simultaneously invisible and indispensable".
Louise doesn't have a life beyond her work: she's estranged from her daughter, her husband died (and left her with considerable debts, a weight she prefers to ignore but which nevertheless affects her life).
Even in her off time she hopes the Massés will call her, needing her.
When the family goes away for a short while, she still spends her time in their apartment.
She generally keeps her distance from the other nannies in the park and the like; they're different from her -- foreign in origin and behavior -- and only one, Wafa, tries to befriend her.
Louise wants to be needed, but eventually the Massés aren't quite as enthusiastic any longer.
Eventually Louise pins her hopes on the Massés having another child.
Louise doesn't make it easy for herself, and eventually the pressures seem to get to her.
We know where that's going .....
Louise is definitely the central character here.
Paul and Myriam, though in control -- they are the parents and the employers, they could fire Louse anytime --, fade largely into the background, with occasional mentions of work-successes -- work, which keeps them busy and away and apart.
The two children are, for the most part, props; presumably Slimani chose to be careful in her presentation, so that readers would not become too emotionally attached to and invested in the two innocents; as is, the shock (of Louise's horrific deed) is all upfront.
As to Louise, Slimani offers some insight -- her years minding children, including at the expense of her own daughter; the awful husband; the neediness -- but the character still remains something of a cipher.
Slimani's quick, clipped style, the short chapters, the brief powerful scenes and all the elision, all make for an easy, quick, and quite gripping read -- in its slight and sensationalistic way.
There is some very off-key writing, too, -- "When he penetrates her, it is her motherly womb that he enters, her heavenly belly, where Paul's sperm has so often been accommodated" -- but mostly it is simple and effective.
Slimani grabs and holds attention well, both from the way she frames the novel as a whole to the way she presents the smaller pieces.
It doesn't advance completely smoothly -- there are some odd tangential bits -- but since everything moves so fast she always quickly gets back on course.
Ultimately, however, The Perfect Nanny feels thin -- very thin.
All surface, practically, -- shiny and even appealing, but barely anything beneath.
Slimani heaps a bit of troubled background on Louise, but that's about it.
There's practically nothing to Myriam and Paul -- a few effective moments and insights meant to say so much, here and there, but never adding up to nearly enough, much less any bigger picture.
The novel is ultimately so insubstantial that it is, surprisingly, harmless: one would imagine that parents of young children would find it troubling to read about the murder of young children left in another's charge, but Slimani's smooth tale is so obviously artificial that it seems unlikely many would even find much to relate to here.
Slimani ends the book not with the scene that opens it, and not the personal aftermaths; rather, she focuses on the police captain in charge of the case, who has been going: "over the course of events" week after week, and who here stages a recreation of the final scenes.
The book too achieves this same distance from reality, not so much a pale copy -- it's decently vivid -- but an attenuated one.
It too feels like a whole lot of play-acting.
(Note also that the story is 'inspired by' an actual one -- though, predictably, Slimani's example is foreign: it happened in New York, not France.
Perhaps another reason why the book feels, on its most basic level, fake -- a what-if-it-happened-here hypothetical that Slimani can't quite believe really could.)
The Perfect Nanny is an odd success - eminently, easily readable, and quite gripping throughout, but also vacuous and easily forgotten.
It's fine in it's own, rather small, ways, but it's nothing more than that.
- M.A.Orthofer, 25 February 2018
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The Perfect Nanny:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Leïla Slimani was born (in 1981) and grew up in Morocco, and now lives in France.
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© 2018-2021 the complete review
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