This psychological suspense novel is a whydunit; it opens with a shocking revelation: “The baby is dead. . . . The little girl was still alive . . . [but] her throat was filled with blood. Her lungs had been punctured, her head smashed violently . . . [The nanny] didn’t know how to die. She only knew how to give death. She had slashed both her wrists and stabbed the knife in her throat.” The rest of the novel is a series of flashbacks showing the nanny’s life with the Massé family in Paris throughout which the reader searches for the motive behind the tragic events.
Myriam and Paul hire Louise to look after Mila and Adam when Myriam decides she wants to return to working as a lawyer after she becomes filled with “bitterness and regret” at having abandoned her career and feels “as if she were dying because she had nothing to talk about but the antics of her children.” In Louise, a 40-year-old widow, they think they have found “a miracle-worker.” She is adept at looking after the children, entertaining and enchanting them, and then gradually takes over more and more tasks in the house: “Every day [Myriam] abandons more tasks to a grateful Louise.” She cooks gourmet meals for the family and their guests, cleans, and never complains when asked to stay late. “In a few weeks, Louise’s presence has become indispensable.” She, however, also becomes jealous and protective: “She is Vishnu, the nurturing divinity, jealous and protective; the she-wolf at whose breast they drink, the infallible source of their family happiness.” And eventually “she has embedded herself so deeply in their lives that it now seems impossible to remove her.”
From the beginning, there are hints that there is more to Louise than is obvious. When Myriam and Paul meet her, they are “charmed” by her because “she appears imperturbable” but her physical appearance suggests hidden secrets: “Her face is like a peaceful sea, its depths suspected by no one.” Gradually, readers learn about her grim past. She lives in a “vile” one-room apartment and has only one friend. There are several references to her loneliness; for example, “Solitude was like a vast hole into which Louise watched herself sink.” What she wants more than anything is to become a member of the Massé family: “She has only one desire: to create a world with them, to find her place and live there, to dig herself a niche, a burrow, a warm hiding place.” Of course as time passes, Louise realizes that eventually the family will cease to need her; her lack of security causes her to become more and more desperate. In the end, some readers will find sufficient explanation in Louise’s character for the murders, but others may still feel that Louise remains an enigma.
The reader will end up asking who bears responsibility for what happens. Is Louise entirely to blame? Do Paul and Myriam exacerbate the situation by sometimes telling her, “’You’re part of the family’” and at other times, keeping her at a “’good distance.’” Myriam, for example, thinks, “You look at her and you do not see her. Her presence is intimate but never familiar.” Only once does Myriam try “to imagine, in a corporeal sense, everything Louise is when she is not with them.” Should Myriam and Paul have been less willing to become dependent on Louise: “It would be impossible, they think, to manage without her. They react like spoiled children, like purring cats.” Are the children too much for Louise? The children’s tantrums do exhaust the parents; “Mila’s tantrums drove [Myriam] mad. . . . Sometimes she wanted to scream like a lunatic in the street. They’re eating me alive, she would think.” What is the role of fate? At one point, fate is described as “vicious as a reptile. It always ends up pushing us to the wrong side of the handrail.”
Readers who enjoy character studies will enjoy this novel. The third person omniscient narration gives insight into the thoughts and feelings of all characters, even the children. On the other hand, the book may be too intense for parents looking for a nanny or au pair for their offspring.