Adèle: Leïla Slimani

★★★

Having read Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby last year, I was keen to try her new novel, Adèle. Like Lullaby, this takes us beyond the polished facade of a comfortable, upper-middle-class Parisian family and shows us the hypocrisy and unhappiness within. This time our protagonists are Adèle, a journalist, and her husband Richard, a successful surgeon. They have a son, Lucien, and spend Christmas holidays with Richard’s wealthy family in the country. It’s a superficially perfect existence; but there are cracks beneath the surface. Adèle, the beautiful, serene, accomplished wife, hides a dark secret: ever since she was a child, she has been a sex addict, compulsively seeking out sensual experiences with as many people as she can, using these moments to anchor herself against the great, vast meaninglessness of the world. Yet Adèle’s time is running out and, when she makes a pass at a colleague of Richard’s, her whole carefully-constructed world is about to collapse.

Adèle is exhausted. Her marriage to Richard was supposed to give her a new start – a life away from her parents’ cramped home in Boulogne, with a loving husband and a little boy to cherish. But nothing has worked out as it was supposed to. Rendered complacent by his low sex drive, Richard doesn’t give her the attention she needs to feel alive and so she frequently cruises Paris’s streets and bars in search of men who are willing to make her feel vivid and desired. As time passes, she needs more and more in order to feel satisfied. As she pushes further in search of that elusive (and unattainable) completion, she risks not only the security of her marriage but her own personal safety – and not only her physical safety but also her mental stability, as the strain of keeping up a double life begins to take its toll on her. The situation can’t last – but how can it be resolved?

Slimani elegantly avoids pointing the finger at either Adèle or Richard. Their marriage clearly isn’t satisfying, but that can be blamed on both of them: Adèle’s restlessness and her refusal to seek therapy on her own account; and Richard’s comfortable assumption that his wife is all right with his indifference to sex. Indeed, at one point Slimani notes that Richard thought Adèle would be relieved, as an intelligent woman, to be freed of a man pestering her for physical favours. There are a whole load of gender assumptions floating around here which are not helpful or true and, as Slimani shows, have contributed to the tragic disintegration of a (manifestly ill-matched) marriage. Yet Richard, to give him credit, comes through. With determination (and a good deal of naivete), he believes that he can make Adèle better and he embarks on a mission to do just that – although whether he can possibly succeed remains to be seen.

I don’t for a moment doubt that sex addiction is a troubling and distressing mental illness. I have read other accounts of it and, like any condition that causes compulsive behaviour, it must be terrifying and dehumanising. My difficulty in empathising with Slimani’s characters is not the nature of the illness they’re battling. It’s just that this is a story of beautiful, rich people battling a problem in attractive surroundings, with a lovely country house to retreat to, and enough money to tackle therapy and everything else. Perhaps it didn’t help that I was reading this at the same time as What Hell is Not, which makes Adèle feel like a piece of edgy bourgeois voyeurism: a sort of Belle du Jour for the modern era (‘bored Parisian wife has gritty sex with men plucked off the street to give meaning to her dull middle-class existence’). And yet, despite that, we are drawn to empathise to some extent with Adèle’s plight: her efforts to change and the tiny events that can snowball, like the beginning of an avalanche, to undo her resolve.

Another intriguing book from Slimani, which peels away the sheen of the Parisian bourgeoisie to reveal the raw human passions struggling within, but which, unfortunately, didn’t make a strong impact on me.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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