ADÈLE ROBINSON’S SON has inherited her husband’s mouth, which is shaped like a marzipan sweet. How sweet. Except it’s not, or at least she isn’t. This despite the fact that she presents an iteration of the picture-perfect, all-possessing Parisian wife: she’s a reporter at a newspaper; her husband is a surgeon; they live in an apartment in the 18th arrondissement; she wears turquoise eyeliner.
Predictably, it’s all a facade. She is compulsively, prolifically, and proficiently unfaithful — equipped with a burner phone for her many assignations, a second laptop stowed under the bed, as well as fresh tights and wet wipes kept on her person wherever she goes. She is wary of “married men, sentimental men, hysterical men, old bachelors, young romantics, online lovers, friends of friends.”
She married Richard for the simple reason that he was the first man to ask her; she had her son to obtain, as both a wife and a mother, an “aura of respectability that no one can take away from her.” Lest we think her utterly bloodless, we are reassured that she does love her son, but it is a “rough, misshapen love, dented and bruised by everyday life. A love that has no time for itself.” So far, so good. Plenty of mothers begrudge their children the dents they wring upon everyday life. Except few mothers share Adèle’s issues anywhere near the same extent.
Adèle refers to pregnancy as the only thing which she hoped might cure her of her malaise. Vague, antiquated, denoting female malady, and bearing even a faint whiff of that catch-all diagnosis, hysteria, “malaise” is in stark contrast to the opening of the novel, where her compulsions are presented bluntly in terms of addiction: “Adèle has been good. She has held out for a week now. She hasn’t given in. She has run twenty miles in the past four days. […] She hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol and she has gone to bed early.” In the first few pages, she rides the early morning metro, paranoid and sweating profusely, until she texts one of her rare regulars, known as Adam. Once at it in his entranceway, she muses that she “knows this body and that annoys her. […] She closes her eyes and imagines that he’s forcing her.”
Her desire is not for sex itself, but for sexualized harm, coercion, control: “It wasn’t for the flesh she yearned, but for the situation. Being taken.” She is forever looking over each partner’s shoulder for “the next men, the real men, the good ones, somewhere else, the ones who would finally know how to control her body,” the man who will finally be able to “fill her.” She is offered up to us as the abhorrent wife, woman as bottomless void, a ravenous vagina dentata of insatiable appetites — monstrous.
When she embarks on an unusually long-running affair, she looks forward to the painful denouement of the liaison: “She wants it all: him, and his wife, and this affair, and these lies, and the texts they will send, and the secrets and the tears and even the inevitable goodbye.” It’s an acerbic flipping of the “having it all” trope. In lines which read like nihilistic Anaïs Nin with a 50-year lag, we are told that she wishes to be “just an object in the midst of a horde. She wants to be devoured, sucked, swallowed whole”; “a doll in an ogre’s garden.” Dans le jardin de l’ogre is the novel’s original title, but it is she, with her unrelenting cravings so at odds with her cushioned bourgeois life, who is the ogre.
In contrast, her hapless husband sits on the other end of the sex drive spectrum, having “never felt sex was important.” She notes with relief that “their bodies have nothing to say to one another.” The calm coexistence of her marriage belies Richard’s more sinister streaks. But in this portrait so skewed toward the unfaithful wife, his cruelties are all too banal: he buys a house in the countryside without consulting her and moves the family there, making her give up career, income, and friends. He employs their son as his spy, and he plots for them to have another child with the precise aim of keeping her occupied.
“The men are going think she’s up for it, easy, a slut,” she thinks after a raucous Christmas party performance (wherein she seduced a man by licking her lips “like a lizard”), and “[t]he women will treat her as a predator; the kinder ones might say that she’s emotionally fragile. They will all be wrong.” In due course, a reason for her issues is offered up. We learn that Adèle, aged 10, once accompanied her mother to Paris from Boulogne-sur-Mer so that her mother could meet a lover; Adèle was locked in a hotel room for hours on end. She did not know that the man was her mother’s lover, or what her mother was doing in her absence, but she does have the knowledge to recognize the glances they exchange (on a rare excursion with her to Montmartre) as “lascivious.”
What is more insightful is the later admission that, around the same time, Adèle first chanced upon a copy of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and reads it with all the salacious secrecy of a boy finding someone else’s old copies of Playboy. Kundera’s cameo appearance can fruitfully be applied to the novel at large, namely because Kundera’s fiction is characterized by an abundance of seemingly gratuitous sex. But then, Kundera’s oeuvre endeavored to investigate the personal freedoms of private lives against backdrops of totalitarian Soviet regime. To conclude that the bourgeois Parisian life of Adèle is therefore a totalitarian regime wouldn’t tell the whole story, and would be too simple. Part of why The Unbearable Lightness of Being can be perplexing is that Tomáš is compulsively unfaithful to Tereza, and a reason is never given. Tales of female promiscuity, however, always demand an answer, reason, or motive, and it must be grounded in abuse or neglect. What would disgust us most is a woman who does what Adèle does for no reason at all, and the ones we are given (childhood neglect, a mother who was herself unfaithful) are insufficiently convincing. The markers of high-functioning sex addiction (excessive sweat, paranoia) feel like planted evidence. Of more interest is the view we are given of the interpretive prison Adèle occupies: people will think any number of things, but they will all be wrong. Feminine ennui is no more than the condition of paralysis brought on by being subjected to constant, unrelenting interpretation, and hers is a particularly dark case. However, the novel fails to tussle sufficiently with the formulae of feminine ennui, ending up somewhere shy of the wry subversion it could be. When Richard reflects that what “simultaneously revolted and fascinated him was the ease with which she had lied to him and led her double life. He felt duped: she had manipulated him like a puppet,” it’s boring, verging on bad. When his immediate reaction to discovering her is fear “at what people will say about her,” it’s much more interesting.
Masterfully taut and entirely gripping, it is easy to see how Slimani matured from this novel, translated by Sam Taylor, to the second which made her so famous and was translated first, The Perfect Nanny. In a closing nod to the most famous iteration of the sexually self-destructive wife genre, Madame Bovary, the Robinsons move into their grand new house in Normandy so that Richard can become a country doctor. We see Adèle docile but, we suspect, largely unchanged. Effectively under house arrest, she has no opportunity to act on her urges anymore. Richard is sometimes cruel, driving off without her when he promised to take her into town, but they host dinners and get to know their neighbors. Controlling her, “curing” her, has become his passion project. Adèle goes to therapy, acquires a favorite blue chair, puts on weight (becoming “easier to grasp”). She plays with her son. She becomes acquainted with weeding and the need of lime trees to be trimmed. In her new role as provincial housewife, she may still be an ogress — if a caged one — but she’s got the garden, and it is gilded with green.
Stephanie Sy-Quia is a freelance writer and critic based in London. Her writing has appeared in The Spectator, Monocle, The New Inquiry, and others. In 2018 she was shortlisted for the FT Bodley Head essay prize.