Review: “Adèle” by Leïla Slimani

Last year the French-Moroccan novelist Leïla Slimani became an international best-seller with the English translation of her Prix Goncourt-winning novel “The Perfect Nanny.” Following its success, this month saw the publication of “Adèle,” which despite being Slimani’s debut novel in French, is only appearing on Anglophone shores five years on. 

“Adèle” tells the story of a woman who has it all: a good career, a tastefully decorated Parisian flat, and a loving husband and child. But her unrelenting appetite for sex — with just about anyone as long as it’s not her doting partner, Richard — sees her apparently perfect life descend into chaos. While the promise of a steamy romp through well-to-do Parisian society might help sell “Adèle,” this is not where the book’s originality lies. After all, Slimani joins a whole canon of French intellectuals writing subversive accounts of female sexuality, with Pauline Réage’s “Story of O” (1954) and Catherine Millet’s “The Sexual Life of Catherine M.” (2001) being just two well-known examples.

What is more innovative is Slimani’s subtle, modern-day revision of the classic French novel “Madame Bovary.” Like Flaubert’s eponymous heroine, Adèle is unsatisfied by the weary predictability of domestic life: She feels indifferent to her husband and disconnected from her young son. A century and a half later Adèle has greater material independence than Emma Bovary ever had, but the void still remains. And as the novel constantly points out, society’s expectations that women should be devoted to their children, faithful to their partners, and fulfilled by family life, also linger. But if “Adèle” offers a commentary on prevailing gender norms, it is more interested in the broader issue of how we find meaning in our lives. Where Emma Bovary channelled her energy into the relentless pursuit of romance, Adèle channels it into sex, the less romantic the better. As the novel progresses though, Adèle’s initial enthusiasm for her extramarital escapades tails off and she is immobilised, incapable of knowing what she wants. Certain that something is missing, but unable to identify what that is, she hands over the reins to other people. Once Adèle’s husband discovers her affairs, they move out of Paris to an idyllic house in the countryside and pursue the quiet existence that Richard had always wanted. In a bathetic reversal of Flaubert’s novel, Adèle surrenders to the inevitable and opts back into the same life that Emma Bovary longed to leave. 

As readers we are left with little explanation of this decision, and here lies the genuinely provocative and original dimension of the novel. Beyond the vivid details of Adèle’s erotic encounters, what is more shocking is that the book subverts our expectations of what a novel exploring female sexuality might tell us. A more conventional writer might have offered a frank but ultimately sympathetic portrayal of a flawed female protagonist, with a careful dissection of the psychological complexity of a woman underwhelmed by motherhood and plagued by society’s sexual double standards. Slimani doesn’t do this. Instead, her protagonist appears as a sort of empty vessel, driven by a sense that things are not enough, but unable to reflect on why that might be, and incapable of ever really taking things into her own hands. The narrative flatness of the book underpins this: Written in short sentences, almost entirely in the present tense, it is largely descriptive and rarely explanatory. The novel offers little space for unpacking the psychological motivations behind Adèle’s choices, and shows no desire to make sense of things, either on Adèle’s account or for the reader. 

Here we might see “Adèle” as part of a lineage of French novels that, rather than accentuating the psychological complexities of their protagonists, manoeuvre the characters as pawns in a broader exposition of ideas. An archetypal example of this is Albert Camus’s “The Outsider” (1942), a novel that Slimani says had a profound influence on her work, and one that was also criticised for its narrative flatness and its implausible, two-dimensional characters. Recounting the story of Meursault, who in the novel’s climax kills a man on a beach for no apparent reason, Camus’ great work of existential literature explores how, as a society, we settle on an agreed system of values, condemning those who do not abide by the same rules, in the process establishing meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe. In its own way, “Adèle” also depicts a figure whose value system does not align with social norms: When Adèle accords greater importance to encounters with strange men in dark alleys than to the wellbeing of her family, her actions are met with the incredulity of those around her.

Like Camus, Slimani uses the singularity of Adèle’s seemingly impossible situation to stage a more universal exploration of how we make sense of our lives, ourselves and our relationships. Throughout the novel’s pages we catch glimpses of things we can probably all relate to, not least of which is the challenge of reconciling the choices we make for ourselves with the choices we make for other people, when the two are not compatible. The original French title of “Adèle” – “Dans le jardin de l’ogre” or “In the ogre’s garden” – invites us to see Adèle as this mythical creature who, while voracious and destructive, is ultimately just an exaggerated version of the flawed human beings that we all are. And as Slimani’s masterfully wrought novel draws to a close, we are left wondering whether this “outsider,” this seemingly monstrous character, is so very different from ourselves. 

“Adèle” by Leïla Slimani, translated by Sam Taylor, is published by Penguin Books in the US (RRP $16.00) and Faber in the UK (RRP £12.99).

Article published on Blouin Artinfo.