A Best-seller Should Be Divisive
When I came up with my plan of reading (and writing about) a new translation every week, I wanted to try and force myself to read books that I would normally just skip over. There are definitely going to be months filled with books by New Directions, Coffee House, Dalkey Archive, etc., but to write about just those titles would be pretty short-sighted, and would overlook all the university press books, the books from parts of the world that I’m much less familiar with (a.k.a. everything outside of Europe and Latin America), and those “hot” books that people actually read and which brush up against the best-seller lists. Books like The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani.
The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Penguin)
This novel first came to my attention on Twitter when someone (Jeffrey Zuckerman?) was complaining that the translator, Sam Taylor, wasn’t even referenced in this profile that the New Yorker ran. The author of the piece had responded, half-defending herself (she had read the book in French, so the translation sort of slipped her mind), and saying they’d add Sam to the online version. (Spoiler: They haven’t.)
It’s always nice when a publication with a massive readership covers international literature, but the fact that they wrote about Slimani’s novel—winner of the Goncourt, a “#1 International Bestseller,” a book about nannies and mothering fears that probably hit a lot closer to home for the New Yorker’s readership—is in no way surprising. This is a book designed to start conversations and garner praise. Like an Imagine Dragons song, it feels at times as if it was crafted by algorithm, perfectly designed to press all the right buttons in a general reader.
That said, it’s a pretty good book. If you haven’t read the jacket copy (or the aforementioned New Yorker article), this is a novel about a “perfect” nanny who loses her shit and murders the two kids in her care and herself. All of that is explained in the opening pages (“The baby is dead.” is the first line), and then we go back in time to see how the nanny came to work in this household, what sort of anxiety cracks were drawn on her psyche, the increasingly complicated relationship between Louise and her employers, before returning to that first scene in which there is blood, screaming, and dead babies.
I suspect that description is intriguing enough to hook a lot of readers, but “a lot” isn’t necessarily the sort of explosive hit that Penguin is hoping for.
Chanson Douce has been translated into eighteen languages, with seventeen more to come. The title means “sweet song,” which was rendered Lullaby for the British edition. The American one, which comes out in January, will be called The Perfect Nanny. John Siciliano, Slimani’s editor at Penguin, told me, “I didn’t want to call it Lullaby, because that sounds sleepily forgettable, and my goal is to reach a big commercial readership.” He name-checked Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train and said, “We’re getting this book into places like Walmart and Target.”
Although there’s no way to know for sure if a book is going to take off or not, there are certain criteria that give a title a leg up. The Bestseller Code is an attempt to figure out some of the “subtle cues” that make certain books appeal to the masses while leaving others destined for the Great Remainder Pile in the Sky. I haven’t read this book (sounds sort of interesting to me, but only in a Blinkist version), and have no experience working on a best-seller, which is the perfect backdrop for some wild, unlearned speculation about why The Perfect Nanny is going to take off.
1) It’s short and breezy. This book hardly fills its 220 pages. The chapters are short, there are a ton of blank pages, the leading is sizeable, the whole novel is readable in around four hours. This is good! Who wants to read a brick that they’ll have to carry around for weeks and weeks? Something with a lot of words on the page? NERDS. That’s who.
2) The style is from the Hemingway school of writing—short, direct, concise, with little abstraction. People love this shit. For a book to be a best-seller, it has to be an entertainment first. And what’s entertaining to the widest range of readers is a book that is solid, something you can easily envision, with sentences you never get lost in. (Having to reread a sentence or a paragraph would negate the gains found in point number one.) Here’s a totally random example of Slimani’s writing:
The children come out of the water and run, naked, into their mother’s arms. Louise starts cleaning up the bathroom. She wipes the tub with a sponge and Myriam tells her: “Don’t bother, there’s no need. It’s late already. You can go home. You must have had a tough day.” Louise pretends not to hear. Squatting down, she continues scrubbing the edge of the bath and tidying up the toys that the children have tossed around.
The whole novel is unchallenging in that way. It’s the kind of writing that you can sort of relax into, the type of writing that lets you forget that your life is stressful and a struggle. I can see why this appeals to a lot of people—it’s the sort of writing that uncomplicates your consciousness as you read it.
3) Ambiguous character motivations. Although people love prose that’s concrete and unambiguous, they don’t want the characters to be that simple. You’re a fool if you think that this book is going to clearly, in logical, indisputable fashion, explain exactly what went wrong for Louise and what led her to kill Mila and Adam. What would be the fun in that? How can you even have a book-club discussion if you can’t argue about the core part of the book. (“Was she always dangerous and the stress put her over the edge?” “Was it because of her money problems?” “Was she resentful of Myriam and Paul’s success and seeming disinterest in having more kids?” “Did Paul and Myriam force her into this situation?”) If a book doesn’t have that sort of ambiguity at its core, lots of readers will simply forget it.
4) Going one step further, all the main characters should be both inherently sympathetic and, at the same time, somewhat evil. The scene when Paul blows up at Louise about putting makeup on Mila is a good example of this. Paul’s a decent enough guy—contrary to cliche, there’s no sexual tension between him and his perfect nanny—but not always. He loses his temper. He’s not always in tune with his wife. He’s loud when he’s drunk. We don’t always like him. And for most of the book, Louise is incredibly sympathetic, especially as you find out about her estranged daughter’s behavioral issues, the financial disarray her husband left her in when he died (thanks to his kooky belief that the best job in the world was firing off questionable lawsuit after questionable lawsuit), etc., even though, all along, from moment number one, you know that she’s brutally murdered two kids.
5) The fact that Penguin wants this book to be successful. If you throw enough money at it—and stock it in Walmart and Costco and Wegmans—you will be able to sell a boatload of copies. (And you’ll be able to get it into the right hands so that it’s “Named One of 2018’s Most Anticipated Books by NPR’s Weekend Edition, Real Simple, The Millions, The Guardian, Bustle, and Book Riot.) Sure, some books are flops, but when a corporate publisher puts their might behind something like this, a flop means they only sold 25,000 copies instead of 200,000. Sure, this isn’t financially successful for them, but getting that many people to read a given book seems pretty damn good to, I don’t know, 99% of all writers? Success is relative.
6) Also doesn’t hurt that this book is available in 35 languages. On the surface, that wouldn’t really seem to matter that much for readers here in the States, but at the same time, just think about the cumulative marketing efforts (money + manpower) taking place all over the globe for this book. There’s some sort of publishing alchemy that takes place when so many partners around the globe are all focused on the same book.
7) Disagreement about whether the book is good or not. Sure, this seems like a crazy statement, since word-of-mouth is generally predicated on the idea that people who love the book foist it on their friends and family, who also love it, tell their Twitter followers, and so on and forth. But a book that’s universally liked is boring. When The DaVinci Code first broke, I knew just as many people who hate-read it as those who read it because they actually thought it was a fun story. Dissention breeds interest.
But would anyone really dislike The Perfect Nanny? Sure, if you’re a soon-to-be parent, you might be a bit wary about reading a book about dead babies (although people love books with dead babies? because it’s shocking and disturbing?), but this book isn’t really offensive. At worst it’s just a novel. Nothing mindblowing, nothing crappy. Just a book for the sake of book.
At this moment, there are 39 reviews of this on Amazon. Here’s the breakdown by percentage: 5 Stars 23%, 4 Stars 18%, 3 Stars 10%, 2 Stars 28%, and 1 Star 21%. That’s remarkably flat! All combining to give the book a very middling 3 stars.
In the end, this might be a great thing for this book. It’s not hard to envision a narrative about how the book is divisive, that there’s no consensus on this “shocking,” “thrilling” novel that’s become the “most talked about book of 2018.” Cool. But whatever. I want to see what these 1-star reviews are all about!
To be honest, I have not and will not read this book. I am disgusted that anyone would be inspired to profit from the real life murder of two beautiful children.
I wouldn’t read this evil drivel if Shakespeare had come back from the dead to co-author it. Judging from the other reviews, it’s dull and poorly written on top of being evil. It’s popularity in France just makes me think less of the French.
Evil! That’s a pretty intense claim! And “profit from the real life murder of two beautiful children”? I know the book was inspired by a nanny murder that took place in NYC in 2012, but c’mon. Not only is this book wildly different in terms of setting and situation, but Penguin didn’t even use “Ripped from the Headlines” on the cover. Does this reviewer hate all true-crime books as well? What is her motivation here?
Shallow. Not well written. If I knew how shallow the book is I wouldn’t have wasted $10+ to buy it.
That’s what I say about local craft cocktails. “This Sazerac is shallow! If I knew how shallow it would be, I would’ve saved my $10 for some Genny Light!”
Did not like it at all.
Cool. That’s some high quality critical work.
Copied a real life tragedy without the family’s permission. Very disheartening.
Now I’m curious—was there some scandal surrounding this book related to the real-life crime? The only thing I could find in a cursory Google search was this bit from Marie Claire:
The devastating opening scene of the book is strikingly similar to the case of Manhattan nanny Yoselyn Ortega, who murdered two children under her watch—Lucia and Leo Krim—before attempting suicide by stabbing herself in the neck, though Slimani told The Telegraph the plot of Lullaby is entirely fictional.
I must be missing something . . . If this book were about a normal murder (like, a dude killing another dude because dude stuff) and based on an episode of Law & Order, would people be upset? I kind of doubt it?
The characters were never fully developed, and I cannot comprehend how The Nanny was able (allowed) to ingratiate herself so thoroughly
into the lives and home of her employers. And what was the incident(s) that led her to ultimately kill the two children in her care? And on and on,
Not the best book I have read recently.
“Reader”‘s idiosyncratic approach to line breaks worries me.
Before I read a book, I generally check the number of pages. It has been my experience that books with 300 plus pages have better developed characters. I should have applied my quirky rule to this book, a 236 page novel translated into English from a best-selling, award winning French author. [. . .] just as quickly as it began, I found myself at 96% complete not knowing enough about Louise to fathom why she killed the children. In fact, I thought the last few chapters about the police detective and recreation of the crime were just “fill-in” words but perhaps much of the meaning was lost in translation.
There are a few reviews that imply that the translation is to blame for Louise’s motives never becoming completely clear. That clearly makes no sense. The whole point of the book is to raise questions and depict a horrible situation with no clear cause and effect that forces you to sort of examine your own beliefs and ideas. It’s amazing that readers would assume that the French version has some magic paragraph that, when you read it, suddenly illuminates every little mad crevice of Louise’s mind.
The beginning of this book was promising. But as I read on, chapter after chapter, the storyline took on a very dark, depressing, sinister quality. [. . .]
The author takes you down a path of deepening quicksand….and you feel heavier & heavier until you are completely submerged, and leaves you hanging.
Do not reccomend!!!!
Fucccck booooks that are daaark.
If I had only known it was “The French Gone Girl” I wouldn’t have bought it.
Interesting. And probably not a useful comment to most readers?
And, finally, because why not:
bq.SO DISAPPOINTED – MORE LIKE TRASH
CHARACTERS NOT DEVELOPED
POOR ENDING AND SO ON
SORRY I CHOOSE TO PAY FOR IT.