Dangerous liaisons in Paris
- The Prix Goncourt winning writer’s first novel is out in English translation
- The protagonist is a woman deeply bored with her marriage and obsessed with sex
Franco-Moroccan writer Leïla Slimani’s second novel, Lullaby, won the Prix Goncourt, a prestigious literary prize in France, in 2016. With its chilling story of a nanny convicted for murdering two children under her care, it created a sensation in the Anglophone world when it appeared in translation last year. On the heels of its success, Slimani’s debut novel, Adèle, was published earlier this year in Sam Taylor’s English translation. Like Lullaby, this is also a “scandalous" tale, crisply told, which confounds easy moral judgements.
Adèle, the eponymous heroine, is a modern-day Madame Bovary, wife to a dutiful but boringly middle-class doctor called Richard and mother to a little boy, Lucien. She is cut from the same cloth as Séverine, the protagonist of Luis Buñuel’s movie Belle du Jour, played by Catherine Deneuve, a ravishingly beautiful woman who also finds her husband sexually unexciting. It is only in her double life as the pseudonymous sex worker “Belle du Jour" that Séverine becomes her true self.
Unlike Séverine, Adèle isn’t an idle rich homemaker. She is a journalist, but her interest in her career has waned. She misses covering the momentous Arab Spring as she is busy having an assignation. Consumed by a restless urge to demolish the staid bourgeois trappings of her existence, she throws herself at men—married, single, old, young, handsome, ugly, all are welcome to do as they please with her body. These encounters, usually involving casual and brutal copulation, take her close to the “magical feeling of touching the vile and the obscene". In her quest to arouse her being from the ennui of the daily grind, she doesn’t spare anyone—not her husband’s friends, nor her boss. She lists in a notebook the names of available men and has a secret phone to conduct her clandestine affairs.
Expectedly, Adèle’s game of relentless seduction is exposed one day. Richard meets with an accident, while his wife is carrying on with one of his colleagues. Her life of deception crumbles suddenly. But, in spite of the painful consequences of her actions, she only feels relief, more grounded than she has for years. She agrees to give up her Parisian life for the drudgery of being a homemaker in the suburbs, though her inner turmoil never ceases.
Far from comforting, Slimani’s conclusion is spiked with cynicism for married love. “Love is only patience," she writes, describing Adèle’s feelings towards Richard. “A pious, fanatical, tyrannical patience. An unreasonably optimistic patience."