“When she was good she was very, very good, but when she was bad she was horrid.” Certainly ex-felon Marie is far more comfortable when at her worst behavior, hired by Ellen, a lifelong acquaintance, to serve as nanny for her daughter, Caitlin, soon after Marie’s release from prison. Bad Marie is nothing if not a victim of her own impulses, whether taking baths with Caitlin while drunk or getting involved with a questionable boyfriend, heedless of his criminal background in her passion to be with him.
A lifetime of unfortunate experiences and bad decisions have led to the moment Marie flies to Paris with Ellen’s little daughter and her husband, French writer Benoit Donal, regardless of the consequences. Marie has been obsessed with Donal’s only published novel, Virginie at Sea, her only comfort on the long days of her confinement. It is only natural for Marie to romanticize this man, imbuing him with extraordinary qualities: “They were both good people who suffered from lapses in acceptable behavior.”
Her lack of impulse control and careless indulgence in whatever she fancies deliver Marie to The City of Lights only to be confronted with Benoit’s questionable character and his all-too-human flaws. In Paris, Marie is faced with a self-imposed predicament, a toothless cat, Benoit’s penniless grandmother and the women he has left behind, including an actress determined to cast Marie aside. Then there is the matter of the scorned wife, Ellen, who tolerates her husband’s imperfections far better than a woman inclined to the impractical impulses of the moment. Nor is Marie prepared for the constant cacophony of a demanding Caitlin (Me! Me! Me!), who exacerbates an already untenable situation.
Dermansky’s protagonist is a woman without borders, unable to imagine or be governed by consequences, her impetuosity unfettered by reality or common sense. Marie is a creature of exaggerated feelings, revisionist memories focused on her past relationship with the lover who became the instrument of her incarceration and the source of her current belief that she has the power to solve any problems that arise with the support of Benoit. Intimately familiar with society’s punishment of those who break the rules, Marie’s vision of a carefree life in Paris is dealt a fatal blow by an unanticipated betrayal and the burden of caring for someone else’s child.
Without a moral compass, Marie’s Paris sojourn turns from romantic retreat to the territory of nightmares, her happiness purchased on the backs of others and subject to change without notice. From the small island of Ellen’s home - an environment Marie could control - to an unfriendly landscape that has no place for her, Marie’s illusions unravel along with her ability to cope. Even tiny Caitlin reflects the chaos of their circumstances and the folly of demanding love from those ill-prepared to give it.