Reviews of award-winning, international sensation The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani have made much of the first line, “The baby is dead.” The first three pages pull no punches. There are graphic descriptions of two dead children in a Paris apartment, murdered by a nanny. A baby’s little body gets hauled off in a grey bag, zipped shut. The mother howls like a “she-wolf.”
Shocking as this is, the real clue to what the book is about occurs a few pages earlier than the first line. It’s in the epigraph, taken from Fyodor Dostoevsky:
‘Do you understand, dear sir, do you understand what it means when you have nowhere to go?’ Marmeladov’s question of the previous day came suddenly into his mind. ‘For every man must have somewhere to go.’
This, in a nutshell, is what Slimani is exploring. The fate of a trapped, ignored, abandoned person, a woman with nowhere to go, who in this case is driven to an unthinkable crime. Slimani’s project is one of psychological forensics—what drove her to it? The Dostoevsky quote provides part of the answer.
After showing us the dead children, Slimani takes the reader back in time. A few pages later, we find them alive again, and happily playing with their parents, a typical upper-middle class, married, Parisian couple named Paul and Myriam. They live in a handsome apartment with Japanese prints on the wall. He’s a music producer, she’s a lawyer. Post-childbirth, she’s feeling dumpy — feels that she’s losing her looks, squandering her education on mere motherhood. Paul wants to be in the studio all the time. They squabble. When she says she wants to resume her career in law, he says, “I didn’t know you wanted to work.” She responds by calling him an “egotist.” Like so many other doomed couples in art, Paul and Myriam thought they could have it all. At first, they didn’t even want babysitters. Soon enough, life will be impossible without the help.
Enter Louise. She is petite, blonde. Lots of makeup. Not a hair out of place. She does everything perfectly well. Cooks, cleans, the kids love her. She’s discreet. Paul doesn’t even think of her as a “real” woman, but rather, part of the world of children or employees.
There’s hints of darkness. Louise has surprising strength for someone so small. “Her face was like a peaceful sea. Its depths suspected by no one.” There’s a bite scar on Louise’s shoulder. She watches gruesome true crime on TV. She tells creepy fairy tales. She knocks the daughter down by accident, towering over her. Then she puts makeup on her, making her look like a drag queen.
Outside of work, Louise fits in nowhere, “like a character who ended up in the wrong story and is doomed to roam endlessly through a foreign world.” On the streets, she’s bumped into. Yelled at. Pushed around. She feels “invisible” on the movie set of humanity. She’s also deeply in debt. Her own daughter has gone off the rails in school. Her husband is dead. She feels like a “dog whose legs are broken by small children.”
The book proceeds through vignettes, as Myriam and Paul continue to do all the bourgeois things you’d expect. They go on vacation. They have dinner parties. They have sex. Louise overhears. The scenes of bourgeois life can be a bit slow, but the book picks up intensity when we start to hear from different witnesses to the crime, layered throughout. People wondering if they should have done anything to prevent it. A neighbor looking back at an elevator ride he shared with the murderer. The police putting together the clues. Everyone asking, who was this woman?
As Louise gets closer to the snapping point, Slimani sprinkles in a few choice creepy moments. A rotting chicken carcass appears on the kitchen table—a perfect jump-out-of-your-seat moment. Paul, the husband, gently mocks his wife for being worried about the nanny, saying “it’s like the script of a bad horror film.” Whenever a character makes light of the horror, you know something awful is afoot.
In some ways, the book is a classic, even Dostoevskian, tale of one person’s descent into madness. But the true structure of The Perfect’s Nanny seems to be more of a love-triangle. Both the parents and Louise are in love with the children, but only one can possess them in the end. Louise plays the part of the spurned mistress. The outcome can only be disastrous.