An American Tragedy by Way of France

February 2, 2018   •   By Sara Kippur

The Perfect Nanny

Leïla Slimani

BEFORE HER 2016 novel Chanson douce won the prestigious Prix Goncourt, Leïla Slimani had already made a splash with her 2014 debut Dans le jardin de l’ogre, about a young mother caught between her bourgeois marriage and her sex addiction. These two novels, published by the prestigious press Gallimard, have earned Slimani a reputation as one of France’s brightest young literary talents, a writer whose work attends to the plight of young women struggling to conform to the competing demands of modern urban life. Slimani’s astute sociological gaze was refined through her work as a journalist covering her native Morocco, writing primarily for the online newspaper Jeune Afrique; three volumes of her journalism have been published in Paris in the last year. Recently, she was selected by President Macron to serve as his personal representative to promote French in the Francophone world. Chanson douce, meanwhile, is slated to appear in translation in over 35 languages, and has just been released in the United States as The Perfect Nanny.

The Perfect Nanny is inspired by a notorious 2012 murder case, in which Lucia and Leo Krim, only six and two years old, were stabbed to death in a Manhattan apartment by their nanny, Yoselyn Ortega, who then attempted, unsuccessfully, to take her own life. The question at the heart of the novel is one that journalists reporting on that crime also sought to answer: what could possibly motivate a caregiver to kill the children in her charge? After opening with a scene of the murders, the novel flashes back in time, to the moment when Myriam and Paul Massé hire Louise to watch their children, Mila and Adam, and then charts their path back to the present. A wonder-nanny, Louise cooks like a first-rate chef and brings order and calm to the couple’s chaotic work lives, but her troubled past is glimpsed in snatches, suggesting a basis — if not a motive — for the crime she will commit.

Though we know how the story ends, the novel remains primarily focused on the mundane daily rhythms that structure the Massé household. Louise arrives early and leaves late. She transports the children to school and to various outings, hosts their birthday parties, and regales them with fanciful stories and games. “You’re part of the family,” Myriam tells Louise as she mounts her framed photo on a bookshelf in the living room. Within their family unit, Louise occupies the role not of a replacement mother but of a third child whose presence, repeatedly described by Paul as “doll-like,” becomes a fixture in their home.

Most of the novel takes place within the small Massé apartment in the gentrified 10th arrondissement of Paris, a confined space that is exceedingly quotidian but never boring. Paul and Myriam aspire to a conventional upper-middle-class life, where she can escape from the claustrophobia of full-time parenting while he guiltily embraces urban amenities, rejecting the austerity of his own childhood. They celebrate their career successes — Paul is a music producer, Myriam a trial attorney — and their fancy dinner parties, replete with cooking by Louise, make them the envy of their social circle. Their main worry is keeping Louise happy at work: without someone to take care of their kids, the rest of their carefully curated lives wouldn’t be possible. The novel’s insistence on their professional success, and the general sense of plenitude in their work-life balance, augur all the more sharply the downfall that awaits them.

As a fiction writer, Slimani seems most at home in the present tense. Her first novel was told almost exclusively in clipped sentences that dramatized the urgency of the protagonist Adele’s physical needs and gnawing inner voice. In The Perfect Nanny, a similar prose style evokes the repetitive cycle of daily existence. There is something disquieting in Slimani’s present tense, which seems always about to rupture the veneer of equanimity. Occasionally the narrative breaks away from the everyday, splicing in chapters that transport us to scenes from Louise’s past, to her eventual trial, or to a hypothetical future envisioned by one of the characters. Anxious to see her children after a busy week, Myriam imagines that tonight:

she would devote herself entirely to them. Together, they would slip into the big bed. She would tickle them and kiss them, she would squeeze them against her until they were dizzy. Until they struggled.

It’s when the novel ventures out of its comfort zone of the present that it inclines too strongly toward such melodramatic flourishes that forebode a tragic ending.

Although Slimani has said that her work “never meant to describe any true or real event,” The Perfect Nanny tracks the well-known Krim case from New York, even while relocating the story to Paris. Mila and Adam are the same ages as the Krim children were at their deaths and are similarly discovered by their mother in the bathtub, with a kitchen knife in the hands of the nanny. Descriptions of her “scream from deep within” echo the initial news reports of the case. Kevin Krim, the children’s father, was met at JFK airport by policemen to break the news of the murder, just as, in the novel’s closing pages, Lieutenant Verdier awaits Paul Massé at the Eurostar section of the Gare du Nord.

References to Louise’s increasingly unhealthy physical appearance, troubles with her landlord, and history of mental illness all echo news coverage of the Krims’ nanny. One article from The Daily Beast, for instance, describes how Ortega had “continued hearing voices, male and female, speaking in Spanish but still unintelligible to her save for when they urged her to hurt others.” Likewise, in the novel, a voice speaks to Louise:

Someone has to die. Someone has to die for us to be happy. Morbid refrains echo inside Louise’s head when she walks. Phrases that she didn’t invent — and whose meaning she is not sure she fully grasps — fill her mind.

There’s nothing new about a novelist drawing on sensational newspaper reports; that’s been common practice in US fiction since at least Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925). In France, the faits divers tradition popularized by Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant, Paul Bourget, and others in the 19th century pursued a similar topical strategy, and the success of Emmanuel Carrère’s L’Adversaire (2000) attests that this tradition is alive and well. But in its translation into a Paris-based literary thriller, the Krim case has undergone one noteworthy transformation: the novel both flips and elides the dynamics of ethnicity from the news story, with the Dominican New York nanny becoming a white Parisian, while the white employer turns Maghrebi.

This inversion is signaled very subtly — you could almost miss the fact that Myriam Massé, née Charfa, is ethnically Arab, or that Louise is white. Indeed, Louise bears no trace of ethnic origin for half of the narrative. Only when she is firmly anchored within the Massé family, accompanying them on their summer vacations, do we glimpse a few strands of blonde hair peeking out from underneath her swim cap — a suggestive metaphor for the ways that markers of ethnicity unwittingly escape from the novel’s efforts to contain them.

Sam Taylor’s confident English translation retains all French place-markers and cultural signposts. It carefully adapts the pleasing simplicity of Slimani’s prose and adheres to her rigorous resistance to making ethnicity a centerpiece of the story. The book’s paratexts, however, tellingly contravene this thematic reluctance. The English title — itself sensationalistic in tone, and nothing like the original, which literally translates as “sweet song” — is plastered over the image of a woman’s torso, dutifully dressed in a British-style nanny uniform, her pale neck prominently exposed. Meanwhile, Myriam is identified in the back cover copy as a “French-Moroccan lawyer,” and Slimani’s author bio refers to her as the “first Moroccan woman to win France’s most prestigious literary prize.”

In other words, where the Gallimard edition makes no reference to the ethnic identity of either the characters or the author, the English translation places this issue front and center. The two versions conform almost too neatly to their cultural contexts: the French political project of laïcité systematically rests on a refusal to acknowledge or privilege forms of identity, while in the United States, race becomes the book’s raison d’être.

As intriguing as The Perfect Nanny is for its translation of an American crime into a French context, it is most compelling as a reflection on how we consume the media today. The novel brims over with visual references to media technologies and texts: Louise leaves the television on all day long, watching “apocalyptic news reports” with the children “in rapt silence” by her side. Slimani describes photographs of the crime scene and of the children taken before their deaths — photos matching those that appeared in newspapers and magazines in the wake of the New York case (such as one of the “bouquets of flowers and children’s drawings” littering the entrance to the couple’s apartment building). She even references pictures from the Krims’s personal blog. “Just uploaded photos from my iPhone,” Marina Krim wrote in one of her last blog posts before the murders, and some of the images of her children — wearing a white dress, lying on the ground half-naked, visiting a friend’s farm — emerge in the novel, recast as Massé family snapshots taken on Myriam’s iPhone.

All of Slimani’s characters, in the end, are stuck behind screens, and if Louise’s crime is figured, at least in part, as a result of our apocalypse-focused news culture, so too does Slimani register her own position as a media consumer, transfixed by images of the event, molding them into literary form.

The novel in that sense can be read not only as an obsessive account of a crime, but also as a meta-story about the ways in which we obsess about crimes today. It bespeaks our era of easy and unfettered access to online media and compulsive news cycling. The Perfect Nanny offers a window onto the experience of being immersed in someone else’s tragedy, all the while expressing deep ambivalence about the contemporary media culture from which such stories emerge.


Sara Kippur is associate professor of French at Trinity College in Hartford and the author of Writing It Twice: Self-translation and the Making of a World Literature in French.