The title character of Marcy Dermansky’s tantalizing second novel Bad Marie is a quintessentially modern anti-hero. A smoker, a drinker, an adulterer. She curses in the company of small children. She gets a little drunk at work. Marie is the guilty pleasure personified, a trickster set loose on bourgeois morality and tact.
An attractive young woman who often touts her breasts as her most prominent if not best feature, Marie constantly calculates how other women measure up to her. She’s also a convicted felon. (She aided and abetted a bank robber named Juan José, who was her lover at the time.) Released from prison on her thirtieth birthday, she quickly reconnects with a childhood friend, Ellen, who hires Marie to serve as nanny to her “precocious” two year-old daughter, Caitlin. We’re told from the start that the arrangement “would have been humiliating had Marie any ambition in life. Fortunately, Marie was not in any way ambitious.” Don’t believe it, though. Marie’s ambitions are just more devious than those of most people. Conversely, her friend Ellen is a successful New York lawyer. She has an amazing apartment, a refrigerator stocked with tempting food, an angelic daughter, an exotic French novelist husband name Benoît Doniel. It’s via Ellen’s life that Marie gains access to most of her guilty pleasures—chocolate, whiskey, inane cable movies, long baths, the seduction of a married man. Marie is the type of person who can’t help but give in to guttural desire in ways that would shame most people beyond words.
The trouble starts early, when Marie is discovered passed out in the bathtub with Caitlin. Even while Ellen berates her, the seduction of Benoît Doniel begins. Naked in the tub, Marie opens her legs “not a lot, just enough” and locks eyes with him. Before the week is over, Benoît joins Marie and Caitlin for long daytime baths—a precursor to the rendezvous with Benoît in his and Ellen’s bed while Caitlin naps. Marie falls in love with Benoît, or she falls in love with the idea of him, a man she sees as “the world’s most attractive, underappreciated living French author.” Unsurprisingly, it isn’t long before Marie and Benoît rush onto a flight to Paris, running off with Caitlin secretly, illegally, Ellen’s credit cards footing the bill. Marie convinces herself that Ellen’s sense of entitlement makes it okay to do these things. “Ellen really thought she had it all: happiness, a family, security.” But this was all before Marie arrived to take her down a peg.
Marie believes she’s found a kindred soul in Benoît. Unfortunately for her, she has. He’s just as bad, if not worse, than she is. It’s this twist that forces her to grow up. She starts off feeling very adult on the airplane. After all, she’s packed “juice cups and diapers, organic string cheese” for a toddler. She doesn’t yet know about the hundred things Caitlin will need in Paris that she forgot in New York. Benoît even admits that “this will all end badly” when they’re on the plane. But he does nothing to stop it. His ennui seems romantic at the time, and Benoît a prisoner of fate. However, even before they make it across the Atlantic, Marie begins to learn that his acquiescence is not an endearing symptom of their love, but an albatross. Their tryst in Paris is quickly undercut by the responsibility of caring for a small child. It’s all id, for both the adults and the child, and it can’t last long like that.
Dermansky offers a satisfying portrayal in Bad Marie of what it’s like to be blissfully at the whims of a toddler—to win by losing, by giving in. Marie is only really happy when she’s with Caitlin, strolling in the park, bathing, napping, eating mac n’ cheese. There’s so much real affection between Marie and Caitlin, as they struggle and grow together like real families do, that one almost forgets how ineffably wrong it is what Marie’s doing. In many ways, it’s the fulfillment of the life she imagined for herself before her life with the bank robber turned terribly wrong, before prison. Her life with Caitlin, though, isn’t sustainable either. Marie doesn’t have enough money to keep going for long. And, of course, Caitlin isn’t actually her daughter.
There’s something about Marie that drives her to places where she doesn’t speak the language, where she’s baffled by the culture, and this says a lot about her. She’s lost, sure. But she had a chance at a future once too, she’d done well-enough in college, before she became irreversibly bad, before she fell in love with Juan José. Marie can’t help herself, and that’s compelling and endearing. Above all else, it’s tragically human. Even when she doesn’t want to—especially then—she flees from safety, the angel-haired Caitlin on her hip. We know she’s doing wrong. That’s the obvious part. But we also see the denied potential in Marie, the unrequited love. She’s been shit on her whole life, so it’s kind of satisfying to see her fight back, even if she does so via the reckless endangerment of a small child.
That being said, it isn’t hard to imagine a narrative counter to Marie’s, one from Ellen’s perspective. Something you might see on Dateline or 20/20. A successful woman robbed of her child by an envious girlhood friend, the babysitter, and a dusky, adulterous foreign husband with an overly indulgent name. Ellen is a teary, rueful presence that shadows Bad Marie. For as much as Marie needs Caitlin, it’s still Ellen the girl begs for, not Marie. Time and again throughout the novel, Marie is forced to realize this. She fantasizes about Ellen’s pain, Ellen jealousy. She wants to make Ellen hurt, but she can’t do this without also hurting Caitlin.
A film critic, in addition to being an engaging and witty prose stylist, Marcy Dermansky has confirmed the heavy influence of film on her work—stating in the endnotes that Bad Marie was her “attempt at writing a French movie.” The echoes of characters and plotlines are clear. Bad Marie can easily be pictured as French New Wave without the saccharine music, or a more contemporary French thriller like Tell No One or Right Now. We have pseudo-artists, stylish, artful, uncompromising, unutilitarian; an obsession with how people take on and transform identity at will, and how they suffer the consequences of metamorphosis; the juxtaposition of wealthy Paris celebrities with suburban mediocrity and obscurity. The stylized smoking, the promiscuity, the junk food. Bad Marie is satisfyingly familiar in these ways. What’s even more interesting is that Dermansky has never really spent much time in Paris, a “long weekend” she mentions in the endnotes. One of the reasons that this Paris is so familiar to a fan of French cinema is that it was written from the memory of a connoisseur of French cinema. And as such, Dermansky doesn’t exactly offer a sycophantic view of Paris. It’s gritty, it’s dangerous, it’s sometimes boring—the city, not the book.
In the novel, Marie is disappointed by this realness. She wants a Champs-Elysées from an advertisement, not the genuine article. “You think that if you ever go to Paris,” she explains to Caitlin, “that [going to the Eiffel Tower] is one thing that you have to do, and then when you get there, boom, you don’t want to. The appeal is all gone. You’re left with your own taste of bitter disappointment.” It’s when Marie moves past the disenchantment of her life that she shows real growth. Some maturity is salvaged from the ashes of regret. This is also why Caitlin is the most important supporting character of this pleasurably dark novel. If it wasn’t for the little girl who Marie has to care for, then she could just leave. She could cut her losses and take off. With Caitlin counting on her, with a child’s very survival in her hands, Marie has to gird herself and find a way to make things work.