Here is a window into how the world of book publishing works: Last fall, while on a book tour, I received a note from an editor at Penguin Books asking whether I might read a forthcoming novel and, if I liked it, provide an endorsement (or, in common parlance, a “blurb.”) I said I would take a look. An advance copy of Leila Slimani’s “Adèle” arrived three days later, along with a prospective deadline to deliver the endorsement.
I was excited to read “Adèle.” I’d read and enjoyed Slimani’s “The Perfect Nanny,” which was published in the United States last year. “Nanny” had captured the imagination of so many for its spare writing and merciless observations, as well as for the stark subject matter, starting with a dead baby and touching on race, class and gender divides. I thought — I hoped — “Adèle,” Slimani’s first novel, which was published in French in 2015 and won Morocco’s Prix La Mamounia, might be similarly enjoyable. The premise, about a married woman in the grips of extramarital sexual compulsion, squarely fit within the parameters of the dark crime stories I most like to read.
A few pages in, I knew I would not send in a blurb for “Adèle.” I kept reading, in hopes my mind would change, but it did not. I could not endorse a novel I so disliked. A few months later, I wonder at the roots of this response. My standard rejoinder, when asked if I don’t like a book, is that it’s “not to my taste.” Slimani’s novel, however, took me somewhere deeper, more primal. This was no cerebral reaction, but a visceral one.
Compare “The baby is dead,” the first line of “The Perfect Nanny,” with “Adèle has been good,” the first line of “Adèle.” The former is a stunner, a system shock. Why is the baby dead? How did the baby die? It’s so plainly stated. Of course you want to know more. The latter, however, is more passive. It stops the narrative. It invites a response of “so what?” because the reader has no context to care why this woman was bad, or if she was bad, or why her emotions even matter.
The opening is unfortunately a harbinger of what ails the rest of this novel. We are expected to believe that a person like Adèle — outwardly successful, with her marriage to a well-to-do surgeon husband, an ascendant career in journalism, adorable children — has an inward void that can only be slaked, temporarily, by random sexual encounters. This dichotomy is meant to be transgressive, all the more for the lack of explanation for Adèle’s extramarital desires. It’s not.
The encounters, as they accumulate, grow tedious. Perhaps this is Slimani’s point, that sex won’t solve problems, that indulging in base desires can make you miserable. If so, it’s a point made countless times before in fiction (and in memoir) with far more emotionally resonant results. Adèle glides through the narrative on a numbness-inducing wave, the kind far better executed in Pauline Reage’s “The Story of O” or Elizabeth McNeill’s “Nine and a Half Weeks” or the complete works of Anais Nin.
Adèle isn’t likable, but that’s also irrelevant. She’s barely a character, so there is little for the reader to react to. Worse, all the other characters — her husband, her children and a paramour who can’t stay casual — are paper-thin constructs. Reading “Adèle” — such a far cry from “The Perfect Nanny” — was like being in the middle of a blocking exercise in a play rehearsal. Move her here, move him there, see what happens, if anything happens at all.
I’m all for novels that transport me somewhere surprising and fresh — and someplace erotic certainly counts. Sexual congress reveals so much about character, whether rooted in romance, hatred, awkwardness, even humor. There is nothing more thrilling than when a writer, through her unique voice and sentences, gets at deep emotional truths through the connection of two humans with their hearts, minds and bodies. Pleasure in text transforms to pleasure in the reader’s mind, and that’s empowering, though often equally discomfiting.
Immediately upon finishing “Adèle,” I put the book down, and picked up “Nine and a Half Weeks” and reread it for the dozenth time. Then I promptly reread “The Perfect Nanny” to see if my opinion of that novel had diminished. It had not. Perhaps, in time, readers will see “The Perfect Nanny” as Slimani’s actual first effort, and forget “Adèle” existed.
Sarah Weinman is the author of “The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World” and the editor of the “Women Crime Writers” series.
by Leila Slimani
Penguin Books. 204 pp. Paperback, $16.