Angèle Eliane reviews Leïla Slimani’s novel, Adèle.
When I interviewed for a spot at Birkbeck in the spring of 2018, most of the discussion revolved around her first book Lullaby published in France in 2016. Lullaby tells the gruesome tale of a killer nanny, inspired by the murder of the two Krim children in New York back in 2012. Wherever her mind goes, Slimani has a knack for finding stories which will morbidly fascinate her readers. The telling is always done with such finesse and honesty that you cannot help but carry on reading; her strength is in the simplicity of the prose. This is also what got her the French Goncourt prize but also allowed Une chanson douce (Lullaby) to be translated into eighteen languages.
With Adèle, published in France last year, translated in English in February 2019 by Sam Taylor, Slimani is approaching another area: the controversial story of a married woman looking for sexual escapades whilst struggling with a double life, sex addiction against motherhood. Putting herself in danger at times, the eponym character Adèle is one the reader will learn to dislike throughout the book. From the opening line, the tone is set: “Adèle has been good.”, the short statement triggers a question regarding Adèle’s attitude. From this first impression, she will constantly struggle and juggle between her addiction, her family and the lies she tells. There’s a consensus that she will be bad, as she needs to convince herself that she has so far been able to be good for a period of time.
Adèle is not a likeable character. She appears to be superficial, supercilious and perhaps this is also what Slimani wants: a character that you cannot relate to. Would it have been easier to make her accessible to the reader? She does seem to have a normal life, a child, a husband, a good situation but she also believes that: “The only ambition she ever had was to be looked at”.
Putting into perspective a woman who feels enslaved by her role as a mother, there is a controversial point of view brought by Slimani in the fact that vanity is not permitted for mothers. We consider Adèle not to be likeable because she is a terrible mother; we even come to doubt whether she loves her child or not.
Slimani describes a cold relationship with a child Adèle considers an inconvenience: “He’ll catch a cold and then she’ll have to look after him even more than she already does.” There is an honesty in the writing about the resentment which can be felt towards a child. Slimani illustrates an extreme character through Adèle, but also a topic which can rarely be put on the table without any judgments. Every interaction between Adèle and Lucien are met with Adèle’s frustration and impatience; she does not want to be a mother. There is a perspective as to what woman’s freedom really is and how it is perceived. Can mothers really be free?
As soon as her oblivious husband finds out about her infidelity, Adèle knows that she cannot carry on, even though she never showed any remorse towards her actions. She is resolute to the fact that she will have to bend to Richard’s desires or become completely destitute. The relationship is not one of love but of need. After Richard has revealed himself to be in the know of her double life, the next chapter begins with an abrupt first sentence: “Men like to look at their dicks while they’re having sex.” By using sexual imagery, Slimani highlights the power Richard now has over Adèle. She is a despicable being for lying, but is she despicable for acting out on her desires?
In an interview for INews magazine, the author states: “Sometimes you want just to be individual. You want to forget that you are a mother and a wife. You just want to be by yourself… If a wife traps her husband too much, she is emasculating him. ‘Oh! Poor baby!’ We never say that family emasculates a woman, but I think, actually, it does.”.
When Adèle “feels like a drug addict” it is not simply towards sex but also towards the idea of freedom that she gets whenever she goes looking for sex. The difference between her public and private character is shifting. When Richard tells her that “she thinks she’s better than others”, Adèle remains quiet. But could it be because she is? In many ways, she has allowed herself to be free by acting according to her own desires, regardless of what societies standards are.
We learn to despise Adèle due to her lack of empathy or love towards others. Her selfishness activates the reader’s desire to see her secrets revealed, and then pay for her immorality. But when this happens, we realise that there is more to her than meets the eye. The couple’s power dynamic is reversed in a subtle way through snapshots of their routine: Richard takes control of her cigarette addiction; he tells her how to behave and how to dress; he tries to teach her how to drive and yells at her when she’s not able to.
We hated Adèle’s attitude but we now feel sorry for her, stuck in a life that she hasn’t chosen but that she is unable to give up, as she is incapable of abandoning her addiction. The satisfaction which should have been released through her punishment falls flat; we empathise.
The indefinite loop that she seems to be stuck in is a modern Madame Bovary. But is the ending more tragic as she doesn’t find peace in suicide? The control exercised by Richard towards the end of the book feels overwhelming, his position in Adèle’s life. His understanding of her does not come through, he needs her even though their life has been a lie from the beginning. When she disappears, he “will abandon all bitterness and regrets” if she comes back to him.
As wrong as Adèle’s attitude has been, there is compassion which is to be felt towards her. The burden of motherhood and women’s place in the world is a theme that Slimani wishes to embody in these unlikeable characters: “She wishes she could be patient, enjoy every moment with her son. But today she only wants one thing: to get rid of him as soon as possible.”
Slimani shows a lot of empathy, putting herself into the shoes of a woman which we cannot help but judge. She represents the truth of many mothers around the world, the taboo of the unconditional love that every woman is supposed to carry for their child. Through Adèle and her behaviour, we catch a glimpse of what a mother can be and how inconceivable it is, dedicating your whole self to another human being. Yet the mother’s myth remains within all of us.
Adèle embodies the complicated relationship every woman has with motherhood. We cannot take for granted the fact that motherhood does not come naturally, but also that parental neglect will have repercussions in later life. It is also hinted that Adèle was herself a victim of this damage when her mother appears in the book with terrible words directed at her daughter: “You were the kind of kids that grow-ups don’t like. You had wickedness in you, even then. And you looked like butter wouldn’t melt!” On her side Adèle remains silent, desperate for closure after her father’s death: “She wishes she could tell her the truth. Confide in her and depend on her goodwill”.
Adèle is about self-destruction and the incompatible need for more whilst living a life according to society’s standards. Adèle always goes back to her primary needs. The only out would be for her to leave Richard which she is not capable of doing. The ending sentence “We’re not finished” resonates particularly as Adèle is not able to quit any of her addictions; she is stuck either way. Slimani manages to bring a fresh view on motherhood, even though at times the intent can appear to be another “bourgeoisie” story about sex-addiction through the many sex scenes and drug taking which eventually lose their appeal. She, however, manages to present a French middle-class life that’s materially comfortable but without happiness. Her writing is peculiar and crude at times but her will to be a woman’s advocate is carried throughout this powerful book.