Book Review: ADÈLE, a visceral book about sex addiction undermined by unlikable protagonist

Slimani, Leila - Adele CoverAdèle
Leila Slimani

A sex addict always hoping but never able to fill the void inside her, Adèle jeopardizes her marriage with Richard, her job, her finances, and her relationship with her son for quick and often debasing rendezvous with strangers. Adèle is also vain, judgemental, manipulative, dramatic, and often cruel.

Although the description intimates the book might have elements of a psychological thriller, in truth, the slim volume is a psychological study of a woman who cannot step back from the edge of self-destruction. Because Adèle was so unlikable, it undercut the impact of her addiction which was difficult to parse from her personality. Her ambivalent feelings toward motherhood were also interesting, but those, too, became overshadowed by her unlikeability. When she puts herself in danger and when she engages in riskier behavior, perhaps hoping to get found out, it is difficult to empathize with her.

When a character is so flawed, it seems readers always want to know why. In Adèle’s case, Slimani seems to blame a combination of her mother’s flippant cruelty as a child combined with an encounter with The Unbearable Lightness of Being at an impressionable age, but these factors to me don’t seem to justify the extremes of her behavior. While I am satisfied that at times, some behavior is inexplicable, I am less content that Slimani finds these two factors sufficient justification in the context of the book’s logic for Adèle’s behavior.

Towards the end of the book, the novel introduces Richard’s perspective demonstrating his culpability in their unhealthy dance of mutual dependence. It was a strange and to me jarring shift, and the book ended on an ambiguous and unsatisfying note.

Adèle confronts an addiction not often discussed and illuminates the perilous spiral in which addicts circle. Adèle’s experiences are vivid and visceral. Unfortunately, as a character, Adèle doesn’t spark much sympathy.

Thank you to NetGalley and Crown Publishing for providing an advanced reading copy in exchange for an honest review.