‘Adèle’ by Leïla Slimani

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 224 pages; 2019. Translated from the French by Sam Taylor. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Last year I read Leïla Slimani’s much-lauded Lullaby, a novel about a nanny who murders her young charges, and I had such a bad reaction to it that I wanted to throw the book across the room. My initial gut reaction was tempered (slightly) by the discussion that followed in the comments and that continued on Twitter and I came to see that perhaps I had missed the subtleties of the book, which was based on a true story. (I hadn’t known that at the time I read it.)

Adèle, her follow-up, has just been published in the UK, but it’s actually her first novel (published in France in 2014) and has simply been translated out of order.

Going on my past experience with her work, I picked it up with trepidation, telling myself that if I wasn’t hooked within the first 50 pages, I would abandon it. I ended up reading the entire book in two sittings.

North American cover

Extra-marital encounters

On the face of it, the book deals with another ugly subject: a married woman — the Adèle of the title — who has a penchant for rough sex with a succession of strange men she picks up in the unlikeliest of places. But it is so much more than this.

It is a deeply provocative look at modern life and privilege, of having it all but of never being quite satisfied, of one particular woman’s struggle to seek forbidden physical encounters to make her feel alive and to fill up the emptiness within her inner-most self. It is also an extraordinary examination of self-deception and self-destruction.

That Adèle has a successful career (as a journalist), a young son and a rich husband (who is a surgeon), and that she lives in a comfortable middle-class area of Paris in a beautiful apartment, makes one wonder what exactly is missing from her life.

But look a little closer. Adèle is clearly bored and doesn’t have much of a maternal instinct, but I think the real nub of it lies in her decision to marry the first man who asks her, choosing comfort and financial security over love, a fact she willingly admits to her best friend. And because she doesn’t have that true bond with her husband it makes it easier for her to betray him. It also makes it easier for her to compartmentalise her sexual encounters as being purely physical events and not emotional ones.

Adèle is neither proud nor ashamed of her conquests. She keeps no records, recollects no names, no situations. She forgets everything very quickly, and that is a good thing. How could she remember so many different skins and smells? How could she recall the memory of the weight of each body on hers, the width of their hips, the size of their penis? She has no clear memories of them, and yet these men are the sole landmarks of her existence.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about Adèle is not the often graphic descriptions of the one-night stands and extra-marital affairs (be warned, this book isn’t for the prudish or even the squeamish), but of her lack of interest in food. Adèle never eats. She’s painfully thin. That no one ever seems to notice this is worrying.

Simple plot, clear writing

Of course, I realise I’ve written 500 words and not really outlined the plot, but it’s a simple one, and you can probably guess how it pans out given it’s about a woman who strays outside of her marriage: her husband discovers her secret life. What you won’t expect is how he deals with it, and how their relationship morphs into something else entirely, and the effect that has on both of them, making Adèle an intriguing portrait of a marriage before and after the outfall of its potential destruction.

The prose is also sharp and clear (it was translated from the French by Sam Taylor) using short but vivid sentences — “Paris is orange and deserted” — where not a word seems to be wasted. And the pacing is quick-fire and suspenseful.

This is a compulsively readable book; unnerving, disturbing, daring and erotic. But it’s also a psychologically rich novel, full of insights about the human condition, the quest to feel alive and loved, and the struggle to lead a happy life when so much around us — whether that be our family, our friends, our job — compete for our time and energy.

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16 thoughts on “‘Adèle’ by Leïla Slimani

  1. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed Adele. I liked Lullaby but have read a lot of middling to bad reviews of this one so it’s good to hear a more appreciative opinion. I personally think it sounds great.

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  2. I didn’t know what this book was about until now. I’m always interested in stories about marriage, but what really has me curious now is the husband’s unexpected reaction to his wife’s secret life. Now I have to know! Maybe it’s a good possibility for the Literary Wives…

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  3. Lullaby was our book club choice and what a good one it proved to be. i didn’t know Adele was actually an earlier book but never mind, I still want to read it…..

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  4. I think I had a similar reaction to you about Lullaby, but I think I read it the wrong way, expecting more of a thriller. Having just re-read Notes on a Scandal for book group, this could make an interesting comparison.

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    • I just remember Lullaby making me very mad because it seemed to be perpetuating the myth that illegal immigrants commit horrendous crimes and rich white people are always the victims *insert eye roll here*

      This one is completely different, although just as dark, but I’m sure there’ll be loads of people out there who hate it! In fact, it seems to me that if you hated Lullaby you’ll like this one, and vice versa.

      And yes, this would make an interesting comparison with Notes on a Scandal seeing they are both about forbidden love/sex.

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  5. Although I imagine being rich would be fun, it seems to me that it’s actually a bit of a struggle especially keeping up appearances and so the rich don’t seem any happier than the (moderately) poor. I’ve read Madame Bovary 2 or 3 times and I’ll read this one if I run into it.

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    • Adele’s situation is complicated by the fact she grew up in a working class family, which is why I suspect she might have married for financial security rather than love. And she never quite fits in at work even though she’s good at her job, but I wonder if that might also be because journalism is very white middle-class and she didn’t feel part of that either… there’s certainly a lot of unpick in this book!

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  6. The situations this author picks are off-putting to me, but it sounds as if she uses them for a careful exploration of themes. Your thoughtful review has encouraged me to give her a chance!

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