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The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews


Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky
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bookcoverBad Marie by Marcy Dermansky;
Harper Perennial, 2010

These things I love in a novel:  well wrought prose, originality, a sense of surprise, engaging characters and settings, a little fun, and challenges to our everyday perceptions.  This you’ll find in Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie, a short novel that has it all in 212 pages.

It’s all about thirty-year-old Marie, a very attractive brunette with large breasts who knows well the power of her physical assets. Marie is a bit off—think Betty in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Betty Blue (37°2 le matin), but without the obsession.  Marie has just been released from six years in prison for running off with her new boyfriend, Juan Jose, who robbed a bank and whose accomplice shot and killed someone during the caper.  Juan Jose subsequently hangs himself in prison, while Marie dutifully does her time, working in the female prison laundry.

That is the back story, part of Marie’s short history.  The novel begins three weeks after her release. Marie is now a live-in babysitter, sitting in a bathtub with two-and-a-half-year-old Caitlin, her charge.  Marie has been sipping whiskey in the tub and is now passed out.  Caitlin’s parents walk in on the scene and find the naked, inebriated nanny. The child’s mother, Ellen, begins to rail at Marie, while her father, the out-of-print French author Benîot Doniel, cannot stop staring at her voluptuous breasts.  Just as Marie wants him to do.

How did an ex-con, sentenced for being an accessory to murder and bank robbery, land the job in the first place?  She had just shown up at Ellen’s doorstep, and Ellen hired her on the spot.  Why? Because these two  have a history.  Because they grew up next  door to each other.  Because as kids they were thrown together as “friends” even though Marie’s mother was the cleaning lady for Ellen’s family,  even though Marie and Ellen never did get along so great.  It got worse in high school when Marie had sex with Ellen’s boyfriend at the time.  Yes, she’d been drunk.  Yes, she’d been seduced.  But still . . .  this was so Marie. 

Ellen, who could “forget if not forgive,” had undoubtedly taken on Marie out of some kind of pity.  Plus, she’d needed a nanny just then and the child took to her.  Marie, for her part, genuinely took to the child too.  So why not?

Lots of why nots, as it turns out.  This isn’t called Bad Marie for nothing. But we’re not talking ax-wielding nannies here, nothing so simple or formulaic.  Our Marie simply has one major flaw:  she lives for herself and her own pleasures.  Caitlin is a pleasure, most of the time.  Eating is a pleasure, all of the time.  Taking baths with Caitlin is  a pleasure.  Seducing Ellen’s husband is a pleasure.  In prison, Marie had read his one book, Virginie at Sea, now out of print, over and over again. She is smitten by the author; she’s fed up with Ellen’s constant rules and routine.  Early on—or I wouldn’t mention it—Marie and Ellen’s husband run away.  With Caitlin. What follows is so full of surprises it will have your head spinning.

While I dare not give any more away, I can say that Marie, while remaining true to her hedonistic pursuits, has huge obstacles of her own to overcome, and it’s amazing how she navigates.  One minute she is riding high, dining in expensive restaurants; the next, she is cut off.  Then she’s back on top; then not.  And so it goes.  No matter how bad things get, however, there is hardly a time when simply a hot bath or a gourmet chocolate mousse won’t raise her spirits to the ultimate degree.  And this is why, for all her faults, we too revel in her pleasures.  How exquisite to live wholly in the moment!  To savor simple joys without a thought for what’s to come!  To have zero ambition—almost; she would like to eat escargot dripping in butter.

Dermansky has said that she based the novel on French film, and she has listed five particularly inspiring films.  Betty Blue was not listed, but it certainly came to mind.  Indeed, I pictured a young Béatrice Dalle as Marie.  One wonders, will Marie turn destructive and aggressive when cornered too tightly?  Will she lose her grip on reality, such as she perceives it?  What will happen to the precocious baby Caitlin?

Settle down with a glass of cava and chocolate truffles for this one—because it will make you want to indulge yourself—and savor the exquisitely heady and edgy world of bad, bad, bad Marie.  J.A.