To be a recovering addict is to admit that your highest purpose is to avoid your worst impulses. Whether you regard this as a practical fact of life or a tragedy depends on your relationship to pleasure, and whether your particular pleasures are endorsed or reviled by your social environment. In the case of Adèle Robinson, the pleasure is risky sex and the social environment is upper-middle-class Paris. Adèle pounds champagne, eats potted yogurt, wears scarves and destroys lives. You in yet?
“Adèle” is the first novel by Leila Slimani, the French-Moroccan author of “The Perfect Nanny,” which won one of France’s most prestigious literary awards, the Prix Goncourt, in 2016 and was translated into almost three dozen languages. In the wake of nannymania, Slimani’s debut novel has been made available in English, albeit with a title downgrade from its original “In the Garden of the Ogre.”
Adèle is 35 years old, beautiful, a newspaper reporter who has been married nine years to a successful doctor. Despite her good fortune she harbors some Madame Bovary tendencies, aching for a life of pampered thrills and finding her own existence — a spacious apartment, luxury vacations — shabby. Her family’s money “smells of work, of sweat and long nights spent at the hospital,” she determines. “It is not a passport to idleness or decadence.”
So she finds decadence by compulsively seducing strangers, co-workers and acquaintances, loathing the sex but finding comfort in the immediate aftermath, when she is “suspended between two worlds, the mistress of the present tense.” That interim of numbness might seem like an underwhelming reward, but to someone as miserable as Adèle it offers reprieve. Her descent is marked by the usual signs of addiction: an eroding sense of limits, a stream of banal lies, a metabolic incapacity for contentment. “Nothing ever happens fast enough,” Adèle thinks. Her life becomes a frenzied scheme to avoid boredom.
Although the misery is universal, this story is uniquely, and often amusingly, French. Adèle smokes too much. She spurns Hermès gifts from her husband, drinks wine at lunch and punishes herself after a night of regrettable sex by buying, and then barely pecking at, a “dry, cold pain au chocolat at the worst bakery in the neighborhood.” The book would be a lot less fun if Adèle were vaping and knocking back Munchkins like a red-blooded American adulteress.
Possibly because of the book’s Frenchness, nothing about Adèle’s behavior is pathologized until the very last pages. She submits only belatedly to therapy. Nobody tells her that she has a disease or ought to spend some time leafing through the D.S.M. Instead, Slimani approaches Adèle’s habits as a study in the art of tending a secret. In forming her identity Adèle dismisses the traditional ingredients — gender, race, job, class, motherhood — and focuses entirely on her ability to maintain a hidden life. Private domestic espionage is her creed.
If the central idea of the book is a fascinating one, the prose is not always impeccable. Dialogue can be flat. Clichés are abundant. One character “plays his last card,” another “refuses to move an inch,” and a third pleads, “You can’t go on like this.” Still, I liked this earlier novel much more than “The Perfect Nanny,” which doesn’t have an everyday iconoclast like Adèle: a person who finds work boring, motherhood tedious, friends overrated and marriage a trial. Adèle has glanced at the covenant of modern womanhood — the idea that you can have it all or should at least die trying — and detonated it.