We all read through the lens of our own unique experiences, informed by our upbringings, our travels, our cultures, our genders, our emotions, etc. Though this is inescapable, I do like to think of myself as a “human” reader first rather than a “mom” reader (despite the name of this blog) — first, because I am many things other than a mom; and second, because I would guess that books marketed towards a stereotypical “mom” demographic are not particularly interesting to me. Nonetheless, I sometimes find that my mom lens really affects my judgment of the novels I read, for better or worse. The first time I noticed this was when I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I was hugely pregnant with my first child, and though I could intellectually appreciate that the book was well done, I could barely stand to read it. My heart ached for the poor boy in the novel, and I couldn’t imagine having to put my own child though the trials that the boy in The Road had to endure.
I found that I had a similar sort of reaction to Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky. Certainly the child in this novel, two-year old Caitlin, isn’t subject to the same post-apocalyptic tortures as the boy in The Road. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but cringe at Marie’s treatment of Caitlin, which made it difficult for me to enjoy this novel as a whole. Interestingly, my copy of the book contains a short section at the end entitled “About the Author,” where Dermansky explains some of her motivations for writing Bad Marie. She notes that she did not have a child when she wrote the book, but she does now. “Now that I am a mother, I wonder if [sic] would write the same book. It’s impossible to say,” she muses. I think it is possible, since Dermansky so fully inhabits Marie’s psyche, but (I’m guessing here) it might have been more difficult for Dermansky post-motherhood to have a child involved in Marie’s wrongdoings. However, Bad Marie would not have packed the same punch without Caitlin along as baggage.
The eponymous protagonist of this novel has recently been released from prison after a six-year sentence for acting as an accessory to a bank robbery committed by her now deceased ex-boyfriend (he killed himself in prison). Marie has been hired by an old childhood friend, Ellen, as a nanny. Marie enjoys the nanny gig. Her charge, Caitlin, “was bossy, but that suited Marie fine. Marie often felt herself in need of a leader.” Marie seems to enjoy the slow pace of a two-year old’s life, as she and Caitlin visit Manhattan parks, partake of Ellen’s fully stocked refrigerator, and take long baths together (while Marie swills whiskey, no less). This arrangement quickly unravels, as Ellen and her husband, the French author Benoit Doniel, arrive home one evening to find the pleasantly buzzed and naked Marie asleep in the bathtub with their young daughter.
At this point, most mothers would have fired Marie on the spot and thrown her out of the house, but not Ellen. Ellen and Marie have a complicated history together. Ellen grew up rich, Marie poor, but Ellen’s family tried to help out young Marie whenever possible. Marie enjoyed this largesse, but never felt it was enough. Perhaps this is why she cavalierly slept with Ellen’s high school boyfriend, Harry. Years later, when Marie showed up on Ellen’s doorstep fresh out of prison, it seems that Ellen could not resist lording her privilege in Marie’s face. Even upon discovering Marie’s bathtub transgression, she cannot let go of her need to use benevolence to condescend to her wayward friend, much to the detriment of Caitlin. Ellen gives Marie a week before she has to leave.
This is a huge miscalculation on Ellen’s part, besides for the obvious reason that Marie cannot be trusted with children. Ellen’s husband, upon observing the naked and nubile Marie in the bath, has taken a sudden interest in his soon-to-be-fired nanny. Marie has a covert interest in Benoit as well. In prison, she read and re-read Benoit’s novel, Virginie at Sea, and loved it. She strongly identified with Virginie, a suicidal girl who falls in love with a sea lion. Marie simply could not believe her good fortune that her childhood friend happened to marry the author of her favorite book. Accordingly, her next step is to seduce Ellen’s husband before her last week as Caitlin’s nanny expires.
Marie finds Benoit quite amenable to her advances, and together the two leave Ellen and travel to Paris, Caitlin in tow. Marie quickly discovers that Benoit is not a stand-up guy (as if leaving his wife for his nanny didn’t already indicate this). On the flight to Paris, he runs into an old lover, Lili Gaudet, and drags Marie and Caitlin to Lili’s apartment. He then proceeds begin relations with Lili right in front of Marie. Marie tries to ignore these enormous red flags and enjoy simply being in Paris, but the situation continues to deteriorate. Ellen is hot on their trail, there’s a warrant out for Marie’s arrest, Benoit has no money, and Caitlin is proving to be less agreeable than Marie had hoped. Most importantly, perhaps, a sudden revelation by Benoit concerning Virginie at Sea persuades Marie to abandon Paris altogether. Marie and Caitlin travel to the South of France, and then to Mexico, embarking on more misadventures and near-disasters before settling in comfortably for a shared bath in a suite at a posh Mexican resort paid for by a stolen credit card.
Bad Marie reminds me a bit of Madame Bovary, as both concern the sexual adventures of bored women trapped by their unfortunate circumstances. Both Marie and Emma desire freedom and believe they deserve the finer things in life. Both women are terrible with children and both attempt suicide (though Marie is unsuccessful). Both stories take place primarily in France. Emma Bovary is perhaps a bit more crafty and ambitious, having to plan ahead and expend more effort to push forward her love affairs, whereas Marie simply seems stumble along without a plan, doing whatever suits her at the moment. Nonetheless, both are hedonists, devoted mainly to their own creature comforts.
Though these Bovary-like traits make Marie interesting as a character, it makes her a cringe-worthy caretaker. On one hand, like Ellen, I can envy Marie. She is beautiful and does whatever she feels like doing, whenever she wants to do it, without thought of consequences. Mothers do not often get to escape the burdens of responsibility, but Marie does not let Caitlin get in the way of her own wants and needs. Perhaps this is because Caitlin is not her own child, but I doubt Marie would act much differently with her own flesh and blood. Thankfully, Caitlin survives Marie’s care unscathed, but I think this is because, outside of the sex and the booze, Marie and Caitlin’s needs (food, baths, a comfortable place to sleep, entertainment) are remarkably similar. Marie is hardly more than a child herself.
Somehow, though, I cannot feel sorry for Bad Marie. The scene on the Mexican beach finally did me in. Up until that point, Marie had kept Caitlin in relatively good health and spirits, despite kidnapping her and generally providing her with lackadaisical care. However, she feels out of options at this point and moreover, Caitlin is not being very nice to her. The child, of course, wants her mommy. Marie can’t understand this, having only been rejected by the mother figures in her life. “Your mother is never going to leave the office. She isn’t,” Marie tells Caitlin. Then she abandons Caitlin on the beach and tries to drown herself in the ocean. Instead of feeling despondent for Marie, I was horrified that she would leave a two-year old that she had stolen away from her parents to suddenly fend for herself. I read on only to make sure Caitlin would be alright. Marie, I knew, would be perfectly fine.