Women on the Verge: Adèle, by Leila Slimani and The Terrible, by Yrsa Daley-Ward

It’s always odd when you accidentally read two books back to back that feel paired in a way you had never intended. That happened to me when I read poet Yrsa Daley-Ward’s memoir The Terrible, immediately followed by Leila Slimani’s newly translated novel Adèle.

Both of these books are about women in a sort of shame spiral, and both relate their struggles in visceral detail, so I do not recommend following my example and pairing these books. They can make you feel bleak. I do, however, recommend both of these books.

Adele by Leila Slimani

Adèle is a newly translated book from the author of The Perfect Nanny, which The New York Times selected as one of the ten best books of 2018 (you can find my review here). Like The Perfect Nanny, Adèle reads like a psychological thriller even though it isn’t–at least not strictly speaking. You can probably guess that it’s about a woman named Adèle, she is a journalist living in Paris with a husband who is a successful surgeon and a young son.

Leila Slimani refuses to diagnose Adèle in the reading guide at the end of the book, opting to let her reader make up their own minds about what she is going through, however, it feels apparent that Adèle is suffering from a variety of addictive compulsions that have her life spiraling out of control. The primary one is sex addiction. She frequently drops everything to meet someone or pick someone up and she can’t feel satisfied until she has, let’s say, scratched the itch. This is compounded by a sort of risk addiction, a profound and self-destructive depression, and compulsive lying.

Slimani spares no details, so be warned if you have a tender stomach. Of the two books, I think Adèle sticks the landing better in that it has a more satisfying conclusion–but again, I highly recommend both. Slimani writes with an uncompromising urgency and with a depth so many writers are lacking.

The Terrible Yrsa Daley-Ward

Unlike Adèle, The Terrible is nonfiction. It’s Yrsa Daley-Ward’s memoir of her late childhood, teen years, and early adulthood–a time when she spiraled out of control and lost herself in drugs and alcohol. She also at least dabbled in sex work, and although it was not an addiction for her, it does add an additional parallel between the two books.

Being a poet, Daley-Ward writes with a fusion of prose and verse that works quite well. I struggle mightily with poetry, but I was deeply impressed by her skill with words. In fact, I couldn’t help but think to myself “I bet this is what James Frey was trying to do when he wrote A Million Little Pieces.” That sounds mean, but he’s a trash person so I’m okay with it. It’s also funny because the YA book I picked up next is trying to do the same format and failing, so I can’t take it seriously in the slightest. It’s refreshing to see it done right.

The format does, however, kind of keep the reader at arm’s length–and I don’t know if that would have bothered me if I hadn’t followed this book with Adèle, which urges the reader along in a way this one doesn’t. Neither book explains why its women are the way they are, but only The Terrible felt slight in this regard. Perhaps that’s because The Terrible also has a sort of abrupt ending that left me wanting more. I almost feel like I need to seek out interviews and other writings by Daley-Ward to find out what happened to her to get her to where she is now.

Both are powerful books written by women with a powerful talent for writing. I recommend both.

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