Review ‘Adèle’: Not the usual ‘fallen woman’ tale

By D.A. Dellechiaie
BU News Service

When we first meet Adèle, she’s shaking and sweating. She has made it a week, but she is in withdrawal: she needs sex. After a quick hookup (one of a large number that she has forced herself to forget) , she goes on with her day, showing up late to work at the paper where she works, and deals with her irritating son, Lucien, and her surgeon husband, Richard.

Leïla Slimani. (Photo by Heike Huslage-Koch via Wikimedia Commons)

“Adèle”, Leïla Slimani’s new novel is not just a rewrite of the “fallen woman” trope, it’s also a damning reminder that a comfortable life is not a happy one, but neither is a life spent wishing for something.

As the novel progresses we follow Adèle through a string of hookups (all recounted in a very direct, matter of fact way, reminiscent of Michel Houellebecq rather than the more physical style of Virginie Despentes) and a few scenes of wishing for a better and more fun life, one that isn’t like the other couples she is forced to spend time with at dinner parties.

Richard wants to move to the countryside to get away from Paris. He wants to set up a bourgeois life that is safe and secure (but has bored centuries of people in every major developed country), but Adèle wants to remain at the source of energy that sputters once you leave paved roads.

The reader’s expectations for where they think the story goes next tell them a lot about themselves and their own prejudices ―  and that’s what makes “Adèle” so great.

You never truly get a grasp on anything in the novel. Is Adèle a sex addict? Does her husband know what’s going on and if he does, does he even care? Does she love her husband?

Is Adèle a product of a bad childhood with a demanding mother and a free spirited but submissive father? Or is she what happens when you have a society that still has trouble with freedom, specifically with regard to sex?

The answer to all these questions is a shoulder shrug and a continual “maybe”, which keeps you reading, not necessarily to look for direct answers but instead to experience the characters.  

While the writing itself is nothing special, the psychologies that Slimani exposes in each of her characters are a dark, uncomfortable treat. The title that Penguin Books chose is a sugar coating to make this very French novel palatable for American audiences.

The original title: “Dans le jardin de l’ogre” translates to  “In the Garden of The Ogre” which comes from the second page of the novel. “She wishes she were just an object in the midst of a horde. …  She wants to be a doll in an ogre’s garden.”

While most of the characters are portrayed as naive, no one  in “Adèle” is innocent. Richard, who is the focus of the final third of the novel, is perhaps more guilty than his wife.

If you’re looking for a straightforward tale of a fallen woman and a noble cuckold of a husband in the 21st century, you should stick with history books.

If instead you are looking for a complex but accessible tale that is full of guilt, sex, betrayal, love and asks the fundamental question: What does it mean to be happy and healthy?, then I can recommend no better book than a French novel called “Adèle.”

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