In Paris, career up-and-comers Myriam and Paul hire for their two small children a woman whom they assume is the perfect nanny, the doll-like Louise. She has glowing references and she does far more than merely look after the kids. She keeps the apartment spotless, she cooks meals, she works long hours and she’s willing to step up at a moment’s notice. What could possibly go wrong?
We know from the opening lines of this Prix Goncourt-winner that in fact things do go wrong — lethally so. The novel serves as an explanation of how the tragedy came about, but its real interest — for me at least — was as a character portrait of the tormented Louise as well as, to a lesser extent, of a certain stratum of Paris society.
We soon discover that, even though the children love her, Louise is by no means the ideal person her exterior projects. She’s duplicitous, privately incompetent, and given to trivial — sometimes not so trivial — acts of sadism toward her small charges. But Myriam and Paul, wrapped up in their careers, see nothing of this, and probably would see nothing of this even if it were made blatant to them. After all, what a relief it is to have the perfect nanny so they don’t need to think about the kids!
The Perfect Nanny is very readable (and quite short), but it was a novel I didn’t find myself much affected by. What it certainly is not is “the French Gone Girl,” as the Daily Telegraph reviewer described it, cited on the cover. Also on the cover we have Amy Chua calling it “a gripping psychological thriller,” which I’d say is wide of the mark, too, albeit less egregiously so.
Sam Taylor’s translation is very nicely executed, although I wonder if it might have been wiser to even out the characteristic French wobbling between past- and present-tense narration. And I must say (although of course this is nothing to do with the translator) I far prefer the novel’s original French title, Chanson Douce.