'The Perfect Nanny' Is The Working Mother's Murderous Nightmare

Jan 22, 2018

If you've seen the 1945 film noir Mildred Pierce or the 2011 HBO miniseries of the same name (both made from James M. Cain's novel), you know that story punishes Mildred for being a working mother: Her marriage breaks up, her younger daughter takes ill and dies and her elder daughter ,Vida, turns out to be a murderer — all because Mildred wasn't in the home 24/7 to oversee things.

I feel about Mildred Pierce the same way I now feel about The Perfect Nanny, by Leila Slimani. I recognize that it's good art and I hate how it guilt-trips working mothers. The last thing working mothers need to be reading in their nanosecond of downtime is this psychological suspense novel about a "perfect" nanny who snaps. But, of course, they're exactly the audience who will be most drawn to it.

Slimani's novel, which has just been translated from the French, is inspired by a real life horror: the 2012 murder of two children in New York City by their nanny.

In Slimani's hands, the unthinkable becomes art: The Perfect Nanny won France's most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, when it was published there in 2016. Slimani is the first Moroccan-born woman to be so honored.

One can see why the judges were wowed. The voice of Slimani's omniscient narrator is chill and precise; her plot spares neither her characters' fates nor her readers' sensibilities. The opening paragraph of The Perfect Nanny warns us this is a story in which the worst can happen and, in fact, just has:

The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds. The doctor said he didn't suffer. ... The little girl was still alive when the ambulance arrived. ... On the way to the hospital she was agitated, her body shaken by convulsions. ... Her lungs had been punctured ...

As in the true story on which it is based, the broken bodies of the two children are found by their mother. (Indeed, the dad in this novel barely registers.) The mom here is named Myriam, and she's a lawyer, happy to be working again after a stint of being cooped up with her very young children. The nanny, Louise, is the central enigma of Slimani's novel — a human black hole who relentlessly sucks in and extinguishes the light in the family's life.

After its grisly opening, The Perfect Nanny flashes back to Louise's entrance into the family. Myriam, who (like Slimani herself) is Moroccan-French and has confronted racism in Paris, refuses to hire any North Africans. We're told:

[Myriam] fears that a tacit complicity and familiarity would grow between her and the nanny. That the woman would start speaking to her in Arabic. Telling Myriam her life story and, soon, asking her all sorts of favors in the name of their shared language and religion. She has always been wary of what she calls immigrant solidarity.

The couple interviews a parade of unsuitable women before the bird-like, middle-aged Louise walks in, perfectly perfect in every way. In a few short weeks, Louise takes charge, not only of the two children, but also of their needy parents.

Slimani's aloof narrator slowly reveals that Louise obsessively yearns for a second chance to perfect her own flawed mothering skills. Of course, it's an impossible aim and the pressure mounts. Every evening, Louise returns to a miserable rented room, which she regards as a mere "lair, a parenthesis where she comes to hide her exhaustion."

Poetic phrases like that one abound throughout Slimani's novel and elevate it well above its formulaic premise, one that has inspired many a beware-the-au-pair Lifetime movie.

But, the irony is that for all its exquisite craft, the takeaway of The Perfect Nanny is pretty much the same as the message of those movies, as well as of that 1992 cinematic cultural touchstone The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, as well as of Mildred Pierce. Namely: Stay home, Mom.

Surely it's the enduring masochistic power of that nightmare of maternal inadequacy — rendered particularly vivid here through Slimani's stylistic gifts — that have made this slim novel an international bestseller. Talk about a guilty pleasure.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. "The Perfect Nanny," by the French-Moroccan writer Leila Slimani, is the first much-talked-about novel of 2018. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, isn't so sure that's a good thing. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: If you've seen the 1945 film noir "Mildred Pierce" or the 2011 HBO miniseries - both made from James M. Cain's novel - you know that story punishes Mildred for being a working mother. Her marriage breaks up. Her younger daughter takes ill and dies. And her elder daughter, Veda, turns out to be a murderer all because Mildred wasn't in the home 24/7 to oversee things. I feel about "Mildred Pierce" the same way I now feel about "The Perfect Nanny" by Leila Slimani. I recognize that it's good art, and I hate how it guilt trips working mothers. The last thing working mothers need to be reading in their nanosecond of downtime is this psychological suspense novel about a perfect nanny who snaps. But, of course, they're exactly the audience who will be most drawn to it.

Slimani's novel, which has just been translated from the French, is inspired by a real-life horror - the 2012 murder of two children in New York City by their nanny. In Slimani's hands, the unthinkable becomes art. "The Perfect Nanny" won France's most prestigious literary award, the Goncourt Prize, when it was published there in 2016. Slimani is the first Moroccan-born woman to be so honored.

One can see why the judges were wowed. The voice of Slimani's omniscient narrator is chill and precise. Her plot spares neither her characters' fates nor her readers' sensibilities. The opening paragraph of "The Perfect Nanny" warns us this is a story in which the worst can happen and, in fact, just has. The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds. The doctor said he didn't suffer. The little girl was still alive when the ambulance arrived. On the way to the hospital, she was agitated, her body shaken by convulsions. Her lungs had been punctured.

As in the true story on which it is based, the broken bodies of the two children are found by their mother. Indeed, the dad in this novel barely registers. The mom here is named Myriam, and she's a lawyer, happy to be working again after a stint of being cooped up with her very young children. The nanny, Louise, is the central enigma of Slimani's novel, a human black hole who relentlessly sucks in and extinguishes the light in the family's life.

After its grisly opening, "The Perfect Nanny" flashes back to Louise's entrance into the family. Myriam, who, like Slimani herself, is Moroccan-French and has confronted racism in Paris, refuses to hire any North Africans. We're told Myriam fears that a tacit complicity and familiarity would grow between her and the nanny, that the woman would start speaking to her in Arabic, asking her all sorts of favors in the name of their shared language and religion. Myriam has always been wary of what she calls immigrant solidarity. The couple interviews a parade of unsuitable women before the birdlike, middle-aged Louise walks in, perfectly perfect in every way. In a few short weeks, Louise takes charge not only of the two children but also of their needy parents.

Slimani's aloof narrator slowly reveals that Louise obsessively yearns for a second chance to perfect her own flawed mothering skills. Of course, it's an impossible aim, and the pressure mounts. Every evening, Louise returns to a miserable rented room which she regards as a mere lair, a parenthesis where she comes to hide her exhaustion.

Poetic phrases like that one abound throughout Slimani's novel and elevate it well above its formulaic premise, one that has inspired many a beware-the-au-pair Lifetime movie. But the irony is that, for all its exquisite craft, the takeaway of "The Perfect Nanny" is pretty much the same as the message of those movies, as well as of that 1992 cinematic cultural touchstone "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle," as well as of "Mildred Pierce" - namely, stay home, Mom.

Surely, it's the enduring masochistic power of that nightmare of maternal inadequacy rendered particularly vivid here through Slimani's stylistic gifts that have made this slim novel a No. 1 international best-seller. Talk about a guilty pleasure.

DAVIES: On tomorrow's show...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PHANTOM THREAD")

DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: (As Reynolds) There is an air of quiet death in this house.

VICKY KRIEPS: (As Alma) You're not cursed. You're loved by me.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONNY GREENWOOD'S "BARBARA ROSE")

DAVIES: "Phantom Thread" is the new film starring Daniel Day-Lewis about a renowned and obsessive fashion designer and the woman who is his muse and lover. We'll talk with Paul Thomas Anderson, who wrote and directed it. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Terry Gross returns tomorrow. I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONNY GREENWOOD'S "BARBARA ROSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.