Book Review: Devotion by Madeline Stevens
By Doreen SheridanAugust 22, 2019
Devotion by Madeline Stevens is a debut novel about a woman who falls into an overwhelming mutual obsession with the Upper East Side mother who hires her as a nanny.
From evocative cover to ending (though, with at least one crucial difference that I’ll get to in a bit), this book reminded me a lot of one of my all-time favorite novels, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Featuring sunglasses, lips, and dewy skin, the cover picture evokes not only designs for various editions of Nabokov’s classic but also the promotional art associated with Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation.
The contents, of course, differ significantly in subject if not tone; this isn’t a book about a pedophile, and thank goodness for that. However, it does offer an absorbing look into the psyche of a troubled young woman as she struggles with her complicated desires.
Our narrator is a 26-year-old who came to New York City for reasons she articulates best herself:
I never knew what to say when someone asked me why I’d come to the city. I felt I’d moved for the same reason my ancestors had packed up wagons and made their way across the wide expanse of the American prairie—I wanted to see the elephant. I’d loved that idiom from the first time I heard it. The pioneers had invented a way to sum up both the naive optimism of someone setting out to make their fortune as well as the jaded cynicism to which it was inevitably coupled. The contradictory nature of the phrase was particularly relevant early that summer, as I struggled to sustain myself. Hungry, broke, yet stupidly self-righteous about my lack of privilege and the very fact of my continued survival in a strange new place, I kept asking myself, Have you seen the elephant yet?
Ella (or Elle, as she becomes known to the family who hired her in a Freudian move given the initial of her new boss’s name) is one of those women who feels obliged to have sex with men in order to thank them for buying her dinner. She fakes her way into obtaining the nannying gig for Upper East Side couple Lonnie and James, taking care of their toddler, William. Fortunately for everyone involved, Ella is actually pretty good at looking after William. What she’s not so good at is maintaining a healthy distance from Lonnie and James.
Lonnie is also 26 years old but from a background of privilege that allows her to trust Ella implicitly, confident in the invincibility bestowed by a lifetime of never having to fear for her material security. She immediately treats Ella like a friend, treatment that confuses Ella, who both responds to and is repelled by Lonnie’s overtures. Ella likes and admires Lonnie even as she’s consumingly jealous both of Lonnie’s lifestyle and the ease with which Lonnie sails through life. These conflicting emotions are best encapsulated in this passage where Ella has stolen a distinctive ring from Lonnie’s childhood:
At first I slipped the ring off before I left my apartment. Then I started wearing it all the time, even in front of Lonnie. I did it because I was bored. Because watching a baby is so repetitive. Because it thrilled me. Because it made me feel sick with worry. Because feeling anything is better than feeling nothing. Because I didn’t feel guilty. Because they had so much stuff and I had no stuff. Because it meant nothing to her and a lot to me. Because I wanted to prove to myself this job didn’t mean anything to me. Because this job meant a lot to me. Because it was a test of trust. Because I wanted to know how far I could push her. Because I wanted to feel powerful. Because I wanted to feel powerful like Lonnie must have felt powerful, growing up, wearing this ring.
When Ella discovers that Lonnie is having an affair, she quickly becomes entangled in feelings both for James and for Lonnie’s lover, Carlow. A trip to the Hamptons results in a night of drugs and violence, leading to Ella’s expulsion from their privileged lives and Lonnie’s subsequent disappearance.
And then, we get to the denouement where, I feel, the tone shifts drastically away from Lolita’s. When Humbert Humbert goes to find the object of his devotion, she shies away from him—and rightfully so. The ruined old pedophile is left to ponder lost love but harbors no illusions of requited emotion. Devotion, however, takes a different tack—one that serves to reinforce, in my opinion, both the curious nature of obsessive female friendships and the way society looks at a certain sort of violence.
Novels about toxic female friendships have certainly been making the rounds lately, but Devotion pushes into territory that’s rarely covered and does so with such subtlety that I fear readers might not even consider what happened in it a crime. The pedophilia in Lolita was punished because most right-thinking society acknowledges that it’s wrong; the ambiguity of Devotion, however, reflects the prevailing attitude of far too much of our own modern society towards what takes place within its pages. It’s a thought-provoking novel, for sure, with rich, literary prose, and I’m hoping it helps expand the conversation on womanhood and consent, especially in the raised awareness of this #MeToo era.