Friday, May 5, 2023

Book Review: The Caretakers

By Jami Denison

A foreign au pair. A cheating mother. A dead child. All the ingredients for a domestic thriller, one of the most popular genres in fiction today. Yet in her debut novel, The Caretakers, author Amanda Bestor-Siegal has taken these elements and turned them into character-driven literary fiction. The result is a work that relies on complex relationships and heartbreaking backstories rather than red herrings, clues, and eavesdropping. And as much as I love domestic suspense, I found this take on plotting to be just as compelling.

The dead child is Julien Chauvet, the mother is Charlotte, and the au pair is Alena. The setting is a wealthy Parisian suburb, and the book begins with the child dead and the au pair in a cell. Then the action moves to ten days prior, and the point-of-view character who kicks off the story is Lou, the just-fired au pair to the family who lives next door to the Chauvets. Bestor-Siegal develops the book in this fashion, giving point-of-view treatment to characters such as Geraldine, who teaches a French class that the au pairs attend, as well as Holly, the au pair who was Lou’s best friend for awhile, and Nathalie, Charlotte’s daughter. This zig-zag style of storytelling would be risky in the hands of a lesser author, as it moves the reader away from the action at the center of the novel. But every character is fascinating, and each chapter holds clues about what happened to Julien.

The biggest risk Bestor-Siegal takes is centering an early chapter around Charlotte, who is the most loathsome character in the book. Trapped in a loveless marriage to a man she married for money, she’s estranged from her older son, who became disfigured after a scooter accident. Her teenage daughter hates her, and when she discovers her husband is having an affair with his assistant, she plots revenge by having her own affair with their next-door neighbor, who is her husband’s longtime rival. To do this, she befriends the man’s wife. Normally, readers would sympathize with the mother of a child about to die, but Charlotte is so awful, it’s difficult to care about her. Luckily, the other characters are much more sympathetic, especially Nathalie, who suffers enormously being the child of such a damaged woman. 

More broadly, Bestor-Siegal has something to say about parent-child relationships in nearly all of her point-of-view characters. Geraldine suffers from her teenage daughter’s rejection and tries to mother her au pairs instead. Alena grieves the death of her mother, a Czech woman who immigrated to America as a pregnant 20-year-old, and the guilt over how she treated the woman colors her interactions with everyone she meets. And Nathalie and Charlotte’s volatile relationship indirectly leads to Julien’s death. 

Readers who pick up The Caretakers expecting it to follow the same formula as other domestic suspense novels will be surprised, but they won’t be disappointed. The clues are still there; the author merely hides them in a different location. Bestor-Siegal doesn’t employ the same style of quick chapters and cliff-hangers that most writers of domestic thrillers do, but her readers will turn the pages quickly just the same. 

Thanks to William Morrow for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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