Leila Slimani's "killer nanny novel", Lullaby, became a bestselling sensation when it was published in the UK last year. Slimani was lauded for her fearlessness in dealing with the thorny topics of infanticide and the uncomfortable tension between nannies and their middle-class employers. Now, a new novel from the award-winning French-Moroccan author and journalist dives headfirst into another taboo: sex addiction.
Adèle, the 37-year-old's latest book which is published in the UK this week, was actually Slimani's first foray into fiction, written before Lullaby (known as Chanson Douce in France and The Perfect Nanny in the US) won her France's most prestigious literary prize, Le Prix Goncourt, in 2016. First published in 2014 with the title In the Garden of the Ogre (which her publishers changed for marketing reasons), Adèle won Slimani a literary award in Morocco, and instigated important conversations about lust, addiction and female sexuality in France.
It tells the story of its namesake protagonist, an esteemed journalist who lives in a desirable Parisian apartment with her surgeon husband and young son. Outwardly, she "has it all", or at least, an aspirational bourgeois lifestyle peppered with Hermès gifts from her husband and long, wine-fuelled lunches. But in reality she's bored and harbours an insatiable desire for sex that leads to a string of dissatisfying, often violent one-night stands and extramarital affairs.
Slimani tells Refinery29 she "[doesn't] really like psychological novels" and doesn't "think of writers as psychologists," so she's amused at the desire of readers and commentators to nail down the root cause of Adèle's addiction and dissatisfaction with her ordinary life. "I'm surprised. I'm intrigued as to why people want so much to understand why. It's a problem with our society now, this desire to control everything. To understand everything, and a desire for transparency. We hate the idea that we don't understand, that we don't control, and especially when it's a woman."
Sex addiction is stigmatised – it's rarely a topic of polite conversation, and there's debate among experts as to whether or not it's possible to be addicted to sex. When it is discussed, it's usually through a male lens: celebrity confessions (from the likes of Russell Brand, David Duchovny, Tiger Woods... I could go on) and sexual harassment scandals in which "sex addiction" is mentioned by male perpetrators ex post facto. The Dominique Strauss-Kahn sex scandal in 2011 piqued Slimani's interest in the topic, but she wanted to take a different tack. Female sex addiction is shrouded in even greater mystery and confusion.
"If [Adèle] was a man who was a sex addict or even a psychopath, people would say, 'he's haunted by something'. But we don't understand why a woman who has a husband, child and a job would do everything to destroy it," Slimani maintains. "I think we would understand it from a man, or at least, people would be less surprised." Slimani considers it her job to ask questions, but in the end she doesn't have the answer: "Asking why someone is a sex addict is like asking, why are you an alcoholic? Why are you a drug addict? I'm not really interested in explaining why, I'm interested in describing the mechanism of addiction. That's what is interesting for me as a novelist."
For many women, sex is a disappointment.
Adèle isn't the first time Slimani has examined sex in her work – her nonfiction book Sexe et Mensonges: La Vie Sexuelle au Maroc (Sex and Lies: Sex Life in Morocco), which has yet to be published in the UK, chronicles the sex lives of women in Morocco. The novel, she says, is part of her ongoing assault on the myths that still surround female sexuality in much of the world, like the virgin-whore dichotomy. "Very often, we describe the relationship that women have with sex in just two different ways: either they are tender and soft and they look for love and pleasure, or they are a prostitute. But I think the relationship we have with sex is much more ambiguous, much more violent, much more complex."
By pinpointing the second-rate nature of many of Adèle's encounters between the sheets, Slimani makes a point about female pleasure. "I wanted to express something that is, I think, a taboo: for many women, sex is a disappointment. Discovering sex is very disappointing. When people talk to you about sex when you're a teenager, you think you're going to discover something wonderful, but the truth is, you discover that it's not as glamorous, as soft, as tender, or as beautiful as people told you. Men, very often, don't know women's bodies or their fantasies. The sexuality of women is very secretive."
Many of the novel's sex scenes are jarring in their violence – in one, Adèle's vagina is beaten and left as "just a shard of broken glass, a maze of ridges and fissures" – while others are more vanilla. None were easy to write, Slimani says. "There's nothing more difficult than writing a sex scene because you don't have a lot of vocabulary. You have a pornographic vocabulary or you have a glamorous vocabulary, and I wanted to describe the sex scenes in a very neutral way."
Slimani is precise and focuses on the little details of Adèle's encounters, making it clear throughout that she's writing through a female lens. "Men and women don't look at the same things or focus on the same things when they are having sex. Especially because of positions. In one scene, Adèle is looking at the ceiling and describing it, which was a way for me to highlight that she's bored."
Boredom and disappointment with the mundanity of bourgeois existence is a running thread throughout the novel. Adèle's husband of nine years, Richard, is a hardworking doctor who craves a quieter life in the countryside with his young family, much to his wife's displeasure. "This woman [Adèle] is so disappointed with what she has, she's disappointed by marriage, by motherhood, by her job and by sex, that she loses herself in this crazy quest trying to find this perfect moment, this perfect orgasm, this perfect sex scene to fill the void, but at the end it's impossible," explains Slimani, who lives with her husband and two children in Paris. "It's like a metaphor for feminine sexuality."
What's next for Slimani, a woman who Vanity Fair France deemed the second most influential French person in the world in 2018, ahead of the country's president, Emmanuel Macron? Lullaby is being adapted into a film, scheduled for release in France later this year, and she's currently writing another novel, the details of which she couldn't reveal when I enquired. I'm not sure what answer I was expecting from an author who prefers to ask the questions.
Adèle is published by Faber & Faber and available now.