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BookBrowse Reviews The Caretakers by Amanda Bestor-Siegal

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The Caretakers

A Novel

by Amanda Bestor-Siegal

The Caretakers by Amanda Bestor-Siegal X
The Caretakers by Amanda Bestor-Siegal
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Apr 2022, 352 pages

    Paperback:
    Apr 2023, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Karen Lewis
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This debut domestic thriller set in contemporary Paris delivers a page-turning carnival ride of characters making a series of wrong choices.

The Caretakers illuminates a niche of contemporary Paris inhabited by families of means, some of whom hire a live-in "au pair" to care for their children. In the prologue, readers discover that a child has died under mysterious circumstances. The rest of this propulsive novel untangles who may be at fault, and why. It's a complex nonlinear narrative with multiple flashbacks.

Debut novelist Amanda Bestor-Siegal's storytelling eviscerates a culture where childcare is often undervalued and appearances can be deceiving. Each main character—and indeed, the entire city of Paris—exists in a blur of anxiety wrought by the 2015 terrorist attacks. The author consistently braids this collective, social angst with characters' individual yearnings, insecurities and grievances. In a world where acts of political terror can bring a city to its knees, people also wield uncanny powers to inflict personal harm upon friends or family.

The plot follows a group of au pairs (see Beyond the Book) who meet during required French language classes. Other than these meetings, they have little in common, a fact that helps propel the novel's psychological tension. They don't fully communicate with each other about their complicated host families, or unpack personal traumas from before they became au pairs. The young women form cliques; their emotional edges are unpredictable and often destructive. The story is told from alternating points of view, which is effective in building suspense.

The novel's main protagonist, Alena, who was raised by a struggling, single mother in rural Montana, is eager to escape her depressing life in America after college graduation. When her first au pair placement doesn't work out, she's sent to the affluent, suburban Chauvet family. Alena is disappointed to be outside the "real" Paris of her dreams, but navigates care of eight-year-old Julien, an energetic, complicated boy: "He was a fully formed person, desire and neglect and rage all knotted together inside him, too tight for Alena to untangle. She didn't know what he wanted." She also tries to sidestep the host family's many emotional pains. Alena doesn't fully understand the cultural or class nuances that surround her, and her private room offers little sanctuary from these misunderstandings. It's as if she exists in the haze of her own snow globe. Bestor-Siegal writes, "It might have helped Alena's case if she had told the police what really happened. The problem was, she wasn't sure."

Another au pair, Lou, lives in the same neighborhood but is not close with Alena. Lou's host mother, Séverine, has a "frenemy" relationship with Alena's host mother, Charlotte. While Alena is introverted, Lou expresses herself by smoking, partying with her French boyfriend and verbally abusing (in English) her young charges. Au pair Holly is Lou's sidekick on days off—they bonded while hiding in a barricaded bar during the November attacks. Holly is eager to explore Paris, jealous of Lou having a boyfriend, and is encouraged by her host family to improve her French: "Holly would go to bed buzzy with joy, with strength for the next day. Even if I never go into Paris, she'd think, this is worth it. A family, immersion: this was what she'd come for. She'd fall asleep, exhausted and happy, and her dreams would be in French." Holly's perception of her hosts is shattered when she discovers a nanny cam hidden in the residence. She feels violated, wondering exactly what they've seen her do. Another key character, Géraldine, is a French teacher who tends to mother the au pairs because she misses her own daughter, who is being reared overseas by an American father. As a Black woman, she is used to being treated as an outsider despite the fact that she's a Paris native.

Charlotte's failures as a mother are myriad and ever-escalating. She's unable to manage a blended family with two rebellious teenagers, Victor and Nathalie, rambunctious Julien, and an emotionally absent husband, Simon. Charlotte envies all things Séverine: her house, garden, husband and social wealth. The adage "be careful what you wish for" could be a tagline for this novel. Nathalie develops a passion for aerial dance, the only activity that makes her feel safe and free. She wants someone to love her unconditionally, or at least to like her, consistently. Existing in a bubble of neglect, rebellion and yearning, she develops an uneasy relationship with Alena—almost siblings, almost friends, but never mutually trusting.

Bestor-Siegal deftly weaves together fascinating snippets of backstory, building a tense, slow reveal of why the characters may be motivated to inflict their actions on each other. This is a universe where small acts of kindness or ignorance unravel in unpredictable and tragic consequences.

A marvelous domestic thriller set in Paris with undercurrents of class, race and social malaise, The Caretakers will appeal to fans of Liane Moriarty, Celeste Ng and Kiley Reid. Themes include living between cultures, empowerment, parenthood, family life and coming of age, and offer a feast for book group discussions.

Reviewed by Karen Lewis

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in April 2022, and has been updated for the May 2023 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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