“She wishes she were just an object in the midst of a horde. She wants to be devoured, sucked, swallowed whole. . . . She wants to be a doll in an ogre’s garden.” (p. 2)
Adèle Robinson is a beautiful and wealthy woman with a loving husband and son, a luxurious Parisian apartment, a loyal best friend, and an enviable career as a journalist that allows her to travel often. But Adèle isn’t sure she wants any of these things. Her career bores her; her friendship is based on convenience more than true affection; her house sometimes feels like a prison; and she has complicated feelings about her husband and son, often wondering whether they even need her at all. More than anything, Adèle is addicted to sex, preferably with strangers—an addiction that’s destroying her life.
When we first meet Adèle, she’s about to give in after having remained faithful to her husband, Richard, for a whole week. Leaving Richard and their four-year-old son Lucien sleeping peacefully, she visits the apartment of one of her lovers before showing up to work an hour late. In order to keep her extramarital dalliances secret, she has to lie to her husband, boss, coworkers, family, and friends, inventing work meetings and childcare emergencies to account for the time she spends with men who aren’t her husband. What’s perhaps most strange of all is that her affairs are purely compulsive, devoid of any pleasure or joy.
Richard, who for much of the novel is blissfully unaware of Adèle’s other life, wants them to have another child and move to the country. Adèle doesn’t refuse, nor does she exactly accept; with characteristic ambivalence, she says nothing or changes the subject whenever he brings up the future. She loves her son, but parenthood is also a convenient way for her to “protect herself from other people. As a wife and mother, she is haloed with a respectability that no one can take away from her. She has built herself a refuge for her nights of anguish and a comfortable retreat for her days of debauchery” (p. 29). The tension between her two lives, and her inability to fully choose one or the other, leads her to fight with her only friend, Lauren, a photographer who has grown tired of acting as Adèle’s alibi whenever Richard comes looking for her.
When Adèle begins an affair with a coworker of Richard’s, Richard finally finds out that his wife has been hiding her terrible compulsion from him for years. Furious and hurt, he moves the family to the countryside and tightens his control over Adèle, sending her to a psychologist and monitoring her every move. But will his efforts be enough to keep their marriage intact, despite her betrayal? And will Adèle ever regain control of her own existence?
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. On page 121, Slimani writes of Adèle, “She understood that desire was unimportant.” What do you think this means? Why does Adèle feel so compelled to have sex with different men?
2. Did your opinion of Adèle change when you learned more about her relationship with her mother?
3. Every so often, it seems that Adèle is going to turn over a new leaf. For example, on page 48, Slimani writes, “She is going to clean up her life. One by one, she is going to jettison her anxieties. She is going to do her duty.” Do you think she really wants to get better? Do you think she ever will?
4. Was Richard right to try to create a sense of routine and security for Adèle toward the end of the novel? What would you have done in his place?
5. How did you interpret the novel’s ending? Do you think Adèle will come back?
6. Did you feel sympathy for Adèle? What about for Richard?
7. Slimani has said that this novel was loosely based on the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a French politician and former managing director of the International Monetary Fund who said that he was suffering from sex addiction after being charged with sexual assault in 2011. What do you think of Slimani’s decision to make the main character a woman?
8. Slimani’s first novel, The Perfect Nanny, was about a seemingly flawless nanny who ended up killing her two young charges. If you read The Perfect Nanny, did you notice any similarities between the two novels?