Halfway through Leïla Slimani’s Adèle, I realised that although it was dazzling me, it was also making me feel extremely depressed. It is quite something to be reading about a woman whose coping mechanisms involve seeking violent sexual release with strange men in dangerous situations while realising one’s own coping mechanisms are simply eBay and porridge.
Adèle is a brilliant and bothersome book. The story itself is not new, but Slimani has birthed an everywoman anti-heroine who is both timeless and shockingly contemporary. Readers of Slimani’s last novel, the bestselling Lullaby, won’t be surprised that the author has not crafted any characters that are especially or obviously likeable. Yet Adèle is strangely and irresistibly appealing, to her conquests and to readers.
To put it simply, Adèle is a 21st century Séverine Serizy. She is beautiful and bored. She’s a glamorous Parisienne and respected international journalist, she lives in a smart apartment with her surgeon husband, and their young son. But sex with strangers or near strangers is the only thing that holds any interest or appeal for her. Her closest friendship becomes compromised when she decides she would rather have an alibi than a good companion. She’ll proposition a neighbour’s husband simply to nihilistically ruin a stultifying dinner party.
This is a novel about women and their appetites, desires and urge for self-destruction, but there is no Go Ask Alice-esque voyeurism, or moralising from the author. Slimani withholds judgement, prompting compassion, or at least comprehension, from her reader.
Passages detailing Adèle’s past are sparse, and thoughtful. She has experienced some abuse and neglect, but these details are not gratuitous, and never used as an excuse or a justification for Adèle’s behaviour. Slimani uses her central character to explore women and the expectations around motherhood in a way that will appal some readers, and cause others to applaud.
Adèle is a neglected daughter, and a neglectful parent. Outsiders see Adèle as a mother before they notice her as a person; so does her husband. Adèle discovers a queasy freedom in all this, rarely finding joy in her son, but experiencing release by exploiting the veneer of respectability that having a son gives her. Such observations are uncomfortable, and courageous: it’s both thrilling and unusual to meet a character who is ambivalent about her own maternal instincts, and not have her turned into a figure of hate or pity.
Given that endemic sexual abuse and exploitation of women is making global headlines, and women are being increasingly encouraged to seek sexual satisfaction and be open about their desires, Adèle could feel awkward and anachronistic. But this is a novel about impulse control. Adèle is insatiable, consumed by her appetite to be consumed, and nothing will satisfy her hunger. If she feels shame about anything, it’s her lack of willpower. The first two lines are arrestingly familiar. “Adèle has been good. She has held out for a week now.” This novel will have a deep resonance for any woman who has felt ashamed of a desire that has sometimes seemed much bigger than her ability to contain it.
It forms an unlikely companion piece to Sophie Kinsella’s The Secret Dreamworld Of A Shopaholic, or Sarra Manning’s You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me – although Adèle isn’t funny or lighthearted, it is part of a substantial body of work in which women do battle with their fundamental natures, trying to game a system that they are set up to lose. Adèle’s excesses are, literally, much sexier than shopping sprees or biscuit binges, but they reveal something significant about womanhood. Our desires make us imperfect and ungainly, and we must supress them, even though it’s only a matter of time before they explode and start to control us.
The sex here is occasionally sexy, but it isn’t particularly shocking. It is, however, startling to read such an accurate portrait of one woman messily attempting to process and control her own confusion and pain. Slimani’s prose is arrestingly spare and deceptively simple, as compulsive and beautiful as Adéle herself.
Readers might be ambivalent about the ending. Is it simply honest, or is it as unsatisfying as one of our protagonist’s encounters? Slimani has withheld moral judgement for the duration of the novel, and she is not going to tell us what to think or how to feel at its conclusion. This is a polarising novel, but it contains important truths about the way women live and think. It deserves a broad and broad-minded readership.
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