Devotion by Madeline Stevens

Review by Harriet, 10 Sept 2019

‘A dangerous novel – sharp, glittering and sexy’: so says the quotation on the cover of Madeline Stevens’ debut novel. I’m not sure that I would have described it like this, but I did find it immensely readable. Knowing from the blurb that this was the story of a nanny’s relationship with her employer, I couldn’t help associating it with Leila Slimani’s Lullaby, which I reviewed for Shiny last year, but though both do raise the issue of what it is like to be in such a strangely ambivalent position in someone’s much wealthier household, needless to say they are two very different kinds of novels.

Devotion is the story of Elle, a twenty-six-year-old woman from a small town in Oregon. She’s moved to New York City in the hope of a better and more interesting life than that of most of her schoolfriends, who have married young and started families. But Elle’s aspirations have not been met with success, and she’s been working sporadically as a hostess (‘The jobs were all essentially the same: stand around, smile, look pretty, look thin, look stylish’) and, as the story begins, she’s really in a bad way. She hasn’t eaten for days and is reduced to sleeping with a stranger who has offered to buy her a meal. Spotting an advertisement for a nanny to a sixteen-month-old boy, she fakes some references and finds herself employed, and commuting every day from her sparse, downmarket apartment in Brooklyn to the four-storey town house between Park and Lexington on Carnegie Hill. Each morning she lets herself in with the keys she’s been given, and she spends much of her time alone in the house with little William. This is a world completely unfamiliar to Elle, who immediately becomes fascinated with the house, the lifestyle, and above all with her employer, beautiful Lonnie. Lonnie is also twenty-six, but she has led a very different kind of life. She’s beautiful, wealthy and privileged. She has a wardrobe full of desirable clothes, which Elle tries on when she is alone in the house. She also steals a distinctive ring, apparently a relic from lonnie’s childhood:

At first I slipped the ring off before I left my apartment. Then I started wearing it all the time, even in front of Lonnie. I did it because I was bored. Because watching a baby is so repetitive. Because it thrilled me. Because it made me feel sick with worry. Because feeling anything is better than feeling nothing. Because I didn’t feel guilty. Because they had so much stuff and I had no stuff. Because it meant nothing to her and a lot to me. Because I wanted to prove to myself this job didn’t mean anything to me. Because this job meant a lot to me. Because it was a test of trust. Because I wanted to know how far I could push her. Because I wanted to feel powerful. Because I wanted to feel powerful like Lonnie must have felt powerful, growing up, wearing this ring.

Elle also explores the cupboards, desks and drawers, and happens on Lonnie’s journal and memorises extracts from it which she copies into a notebook she has bought for the purpose. She raids the bookshelves and takes books home to her dreary room. Essentially she wants to be Lonnie, and quickly develops a passionate attachment to her employer, who does nothing to discourage this. It’s clear that Lonnie is not happy, despite her wealth and beauty, and the fact that, as Elle soon discovers, in addition to the devotion of her husband James she has also taken a lover, the attractive Carlow. There’s undeniable sexual tension between Elle and both these men, which adds considerably to her confusion. But this is finally exacerbated when Lonnie books the two of them into a writers’ retreat, where she plans to do some work on the novel she claims to be writing – not that Elle has seen any sign of this during her solitary explorations of the house. When they arrive at the retreat, Lonnie suggests they exchange identities – she will pretend to be the nanny while Elle goes to the communal dinners and reads extracts from the text to the assembled company. Lonnie think the whole thing is a joke, but Elle finds it all overwhelming, which is not surprising considering how much she has wished to be Lonnie and now suddenly finds her desires fulfilled in a most disturbing way. What’s more this game will have repercussions when the family is back together at the town house. Eventually some dramatic events ensue and its safe to say that things don’t end well for Elle, or indeed, so it seems, for Lonnie.

This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking novel, which leaves some questions unanswered. It’s Madeline Stevens’ debut novel and a very accomplished one it is. Although no actual crime has been committed it can still be described as a psychological thriller, giving as it does such a vivid picture of the skewed but nevertheless understandable mental processes of an unhappy young woman. It interrogates issues of social class, and of the employer/servant relationship, and of toxic female relationships in general. Well worth reading.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and has her own personal blog at https://harrietdevine.typepad.com.

Madeline Stevens, Devotion (Faber & Faber, 2019) 978-0571349074, 294pp., hardback.

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