Slimani is arguably France’s most dynamic and lauded living female writer, one of only 12 women to have claimed the Prix Goncourt for literature, which she won for The Perfect Nanny. That novel, which was inspired by the horrific real-life murder of two children by their paid caregiver, is a masterpiece of imagination. Slimani sets up an unanswerable question and answers it: In her hands, the conundrum of who could do such a thing, and why, becomes a surgical interrogation of bourgeois French culture and the tensions of parenthood. Louise, the mousy nanny who’s revealed on the first page to have committed infanticide, is introduced as an abomination and then humanized, layer by layer.
So why is Adèle so flat? Why can’t such a gifted author find any characteristics or qualities in her beyond her overruling addiction to abasement? The novel is Slimani’s first, published in France before The Perfect Nanny, although it’s only now being released in English. It begins with Adèle jonesing for a fix, having spent the last week holding out on her impulses for rough sex with strangers. By page 4 she’s given in, stopping by an old acquaintance’s for an encounter that she laments is “not obscene enough.” Later, at work, she invents quotes for a story about social tensions in Tunisia, plagiarizes lines from existing stories (Slimani’s cynicism about French journalistic ethics is an ongoing theme in the novel), and then gets drunk at lunch, spending the night with a young man whose soft hands and “woman’s bottom” disgust her.
Slimani has mentioned several times that her favorite fictional heroines, the ones she’s most inspired by, are the great adulterers of classic literature: Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Thérèse Desqueyroux, the last of whom tries to poison her husband and is then confined to the countryside as punishment. It’s hard to conceive, though, how Slimani could extract Adèle from literary women whose appetites are so different from hers. Emma Bovary is all feeling and hunger; she licks the final drops of liqueur from the bottom of the glass with her tongue, and relishes the cold shiver of iced champagne as much as she cherishes her romantic fantasies about the kind of love that “sweeps the whole heart into the abyss.” Adèle, by contrast, barely eats, disdaining French gastronomic hedonism, and drinking excessively only to enable her “planned debauchery.” She has no appetite for love, either. Her compulsions are a black hole absorbing everything except satisfaction.
Adèle is a strikingly dull, joyless book. Stripped of the animating romantic desires of Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, the novel offers instead a nihilistic, depressing kind of libertinism that’s hard to endure without any sense of what its purpose might be. (“Obscenity,” the French writer Colette once said, “is such a narrow domain. One immediately begins to suffocate there, and to feel bored.”) Slimani might find her heroine’s lack of ambition or motivation to be subversive. But it seems to me instead to be part of a storied French tradition—the literary submission and degradation of women in service of male pleasure.