Book Review: Adèle by Leïla Slimani

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I’ve just read the last page of this book and to be totally frank, I’m feeling almost breathless. ‘Adèle’ manages to be both cool and heart-wrenching at once and I am desperately jealous of Leïla Slimani’s talent for getting to the essence of a word and using each one to its fullest potential in a way that appears effortlessly natural. Praise as well, of course, to Sam Taylor who translated the book from its original French.

Slimani won the Prix Goncourt for her second novel ‘Lullaby’ which I haven’t read but definitely will after finishing ‘Adèle’. I’d heard of it before but never committed to actually picking it up and giving it a read but I feel as though I’m hooked on Slimani’s writing and can’t wait to devour some more.

‘Àdele’ is about a thin and beautiful Parisian woman who is married to a doctor and has a young son. Essentially friendless, Àdele hates her job, is conflicted about how to reconcile her motherhood and is unfulfilled by her marriage to her husband, Richard. Her life is preoccupied with dozens of affairs and one-night stands and then the two halves of her life collide and it becomes impossible for her to continue as she has been doing.

Critics have called Àdele an everywoman antiheroine or a highly unlikable character but in my mind she is someone to be pitied. She so badly needs the things she is contemptuous of. She admits how much she depends upon being a mother and a wife to give her life the gleam of respectability that she needs for herself. She relentlessly pursues these passionate sexual encounters but Slimani describes, over and over, how they leave Àdele’s body covered in purple bruises. Her behaviour is something akin to self-harm.

What I especially liked about the book is Slimani’s short, tight sentence structure, there are no rambling descriptions but the language is vivid and draws you in. Some of the time Àdele is doing and saying what we all wish we could, some of the time she shocks and disgusts you, and some of the time she is numb. This all builds to what feels like a fully realised character, someone with a rich, conflicted, sensual and sensitive inner-world. Àdele doesn’t know exactly what she wants but she knows what she doesn’t want and I think this will resonate with a lot of readers. The structure of the book is exciting, though nothing wildly out of the ordinary happens to Àdele, the reader is always aware of her instability and impulsivity and so kept on the edge of their seat.

I have seen comments about how Àdele’s husband, Richard, feels two-dimensional in comparison to the protagonist and I would agree that he is less fleshed out. However, I think this speaks to Àdele’s perception of others, that they can be so satisfied with the mundanity that she despises means they can not possibly be fully human.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who likes fiction with complex and ‘badly-behaved’ female characters. Leïla Slimani explores female sexuality from a stance that feels both fresh and timeless.

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