With Devotion, Madeline Stevens joins the ranks of millennial women whose recent novels describe their heroines living in toxic states of body and mind in New York City (think My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Severance, Normal People, etc.). Most of these novels comment successfully on notions of privilege and success, which these women crave.
Why do we like reading about the millennial woman who has questionable actions and morals, questionable self care, questionable relationships, and questionable attitudes towards privilege and self? Why are these novels so popular in this particular moment? Perhaps they are realistic in their portrayals for the most part, which, if not a depressing fact is certainly a telling one.
These novelists in any case should be applauded for their honesty and wit, for their unapologetic ability to describe the body hair, the embarrassing sexual experiences, the misuse/abuse of substances, and desires that often come with being a 21st-century woman.
Stevens develops this popular new story line into an initially plausible account of a young woman finding a job as a nanny for a wealthy family. She’s literally eating nothing at the point she accepts the job, so she is in really no position to reflect on whether or not she truly wants the job, whether she can even be a good caregiver to a toddler (she fakes her resume to get her foot in the door).
As in most of these novels, the selfishness and self-absorption of the protagonist is just a side note, and the plots of these recent stories differ radically. Devotion reflects the life of the nanny and relationship towards the employer. Exposing the relationship between the ultra privileged and the… ? Well, what do you call it? The lesser privileged?
Stevens, in her novel, seems to imply that Ella is underprivileged in many ways, that her life could have been more successful, had she had the opportunities granted to her employer in early life. In reality, she is from a (mostly white) average rural town in the Pacific Northwest, unremarkable for significant crime or poverty, and despite some unfortunate conflict between her parents and eventual abandonment by her mother, she has a caring father and a home to which to return, should she choose. (Her childhood friends have all moved to other small rural towns, she tells us, happily married with children, living simple lives). We can see that starving in New York City, sleeping with a stranger for food, is truly not her only option.
At one point, upon seeing her employer return from yet another doctor’s appointment, Ella reports that she grew up “in a family without health insurance,” so she received medical attention, “only if I was very sick.” This is certainly not the most comfortable experience, but it is more than many can say about their upbringing. Does her health suffer to this day because of her lack of frivolous medical visits? Not that we can tell. Further, would she really have become a successful (and also wealthy and beautiful) writer should she have gone to a nicer school, or summered in the Hamptons, had a nanny, or had a doting family physician. Likely not.
As a result, the initially promising moments where Stevens reflects on privilege are ultimately cliche and have no real significance behind them. A surreal visit to the Hamptons at the climax seals the fate of this promising theme in her novel.
The novelist in this genre has the chance to present either a provoking discussion about the subjectivity of privileged experience, or exemplify how a particular generation, including, possibly, the author herself, has entirely lost sight of what it means to be underprivileged.
Stevens’s descriptions of how Ella becomes consumed by her employers’ family are engrossing and emotionally captivating. At one point, losing track of the child, she catches herself thinking (“where’s my baby where’s my baby where’s my baby”). The lines and personal boundaries between the employer and the employed become increasingly blurred. Ella does not actually care about her small charge, however. She is more interested in inserting herself into the lives of this family. She will happily become dangerously intoxicated at night, even when it is clear that she is the primary caregiver for the evening.
Reviews of the novel so far have tended to focus on the book’s “thriller” aspects, one going so far as to claim that descriptions of the salacious events (affairs, theft, etc.) elevate “the mundane days of a nanny.” Really, the strength of this book is located precisely in those mundane days. Had Stevens forgone the temptation of domestic thriller in favor of her remarkably skillful descriptions of the nanny life (based on her own experiences), this novel would have benefited greatly.
What are her motivations in her obsession with this family? Any young woman who has left her dilapidated apartment in the morning, making the trek to a nice townhouse or mansion in the city, using her assigned key to open the door into a world of wealth and beauty and apparent freedom, can tell you the unconscious wave of desire that takes over. For stability, for wealth, to be the mother who hires a nanny only to focus on herself for the whole day.
In this way, the mostly-privileged white female in her 20s working as domestic help is a particularly ripe microcosm on which to focus when considering the millennial American woman.
Devotion by Madeline Stevens
Fiction – Harper Collins Publishers – 2019