From the beginning, we know how The Perfect Nanny is going to end. The first chapter opens with the simple but terrifying line: “The baby was dead.” This chapter ends with “Adam is dead. And Mila will be too, soon.”
In this way, The Perfect Nanny mirrors the aftermath of its inspiration: the 2012 murders of Lucia and Leo Krim, both of whom were brutally murdered by their nanny, Yoselyn Ortega. Ortega never denied killing the children, so the trial seemed to be much more about why. Was Ortega insane, did she hear voices, hallucinate? Did the devil tell her to do it? Or was Ortega resentful and feeling overworked?
In the case of Yoselyn Ortega, the jury rejected her insanity plea and instead returned a guilty verdict. Still, a Slate story (among others) published after Ortega’s sentencing suggests not all questions have been answered; its headline reads “‘Killer Nanny‘ Sought Psychological Help Just Days Before Murdering Two Children. What Went Wrong?”
The Perfect Nanny, published after the murders but before the trial, asks the same question—what went wrong? The plot, in the beginning, is simple and relatively familiar. A professional couple (Myriam and Paul) start a family. She stays home; he continues with his regular job. Eventually she wants to go back to practicing law; after all, this is what she went to school for. They argue; they ask questions many parents might ask: Who will take care of the children? How much will it cost? Is it even worth it (financially) for Myriam to go back to work?
Enter Louise—the nanny Myriam and Paul hire to look after their two children, Mila and Adam. Myriam and Paul describe her as a miracle worker, a Mary Poppins. The somewhat chilling omniscient narrator relates, “When Myriam gets back from work in the evenings, she finds dinner ready. The children are calm and clean, not a hair out of place… Useless objects have disappeared. With Louise nothing accumulates anymore: no dirty dishes, no dirty laundry, no unopened envelopes found later under an old magazine. Nothing rots, nothing expires.”
The cracks are there, though Myriam and Paul may not see them. Louise is obsessed with cleaning (sometimes to the point where her fingers crack and bleed), and she seems to loathe weekends (her time away from the children). Then there are Louise’s financial problems—at one point, Louise approaches Mrs. Grinberg, a woman who lives in the same building as Paul and Myriam and asks for extra work—cleaning, ironing, anything. The omniscient narrator notes “If [Louise] hadn’t gripped her wrist so tightly, if she hadn’t stared at her with those dark eyes, like an insult or a threat, Rose Grinberg might have accepted. And, no matter what the police say, she would have changed everything.” But Mrs. Grinberg doesn’t accept and says nothing; a month later the children are dead.
The Perfect Nanny is a book that almost demands to be read at a feverish pace. The story moves quickly, and author Leila Slimani writes in a way that allows audiences to draw many of their own conclusions. There’s also something uncomfortably voyeuristic about reading the book, as if we as readers are actually peering into someone else’s life and viewing their most personal and intimate details.
It’s a book that puts social issues front and center. The first chapter opens with death. The second chapter opens with Paul’s blunt statement about hiring a nanny: “No illegal immigrants, agreed? For a cleaning lady or a decorator, it doesn’t bother me. Those people have to work, after all. But to look after little ones, it’s too dangerous.” Paul and Myriam also shy away from nannies that have their own families because they won’t be able to stay late or babysit, and Myriam, who is French-Moroccan, refuses to hire someone who speaks Arabic or is North African because she’s “always been wary of what she calls the shared immigrant experience.” Louise is perfect, then: legal, youthful, alone, and available all the time.
Race and financial issues figure prominently, but at its heart, The Perfect Nanny, seems to be a harsh statement about the realities of modern motherhood. To be fair, though, financial issues can’t be separated from motherhood—at one point Louise is told women like her, i.e., single and poor, shouldn’t have children, and today birth rates in the United States are dropping in part because of how expensive it is to have children.
Discussing finances isn’t the only reason The Perfect Nanny is a brilliant (albeit horrifying) commentary on motherhood, though. Another is simply because the book suggests little has changed since the ’60s and ’70s, when urban legends and movies warned mothers to watch their babies (think of the 1979 film, When a Stranger Calls, which was based on the 1960s urban legend “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs“). The Perfect Nanny is almost all about motherhood— Myriam has fears, nightmares, concerns. Myriam is judged for returning to work, for wondering why colleagues don’t invite her for drinks. Paul drinks his wine and ouzo and for the most part seems breezily unconcerned.
The Perfect Nanny is chilling reading that all too often feels more like nonfiction than fiction. Given the social commentary and messages about motherhood, I’m not certain whether it’s ironic or appropriate that one of the categories the publisher assigned to the book is women’s fiction. Perhaps literary fiction and thriller/suspense would have been more accurate.