I was often found to be laughing out loud as I spent a few hours in the pithily-rendered, coincidence-riddled, cringe-worthy life of Bad Marie. Sometimes it was just a tart aside like, “It occurred to Marie that famous people required people who were not famous to make them feel that way,” but more often it was the sheer wrong-headed audacity of the novel’s self-absorbed heroine, who has an unbelievable talent for making bad decisions and an equally remarkable strength of resolve to live free of regret.
It’s this tension between her rash impulsiveness and her steely will to bull through the most uncomfortable and absurd situations that impulsiveness lands her in that makes Marie such an enjoyable character to follow. Whether she’s cleaning up the vomit of her lover’s dead grandmother’s sickly cat in a squalid apartment or trying to hush the toddler she has haphazardly kidnapped, in the line to ascend the Eiffel Tower, on a French train to the Riviera, on a rattle-trap chicken bus in Mexico, she never gives in to self-pity, though she often gives in to temptation.
She is already a woman with plenty to regret as the story opens, for Marie is an ex-convict (her crime was aiding and abetting “the love of her life”, a bank robber with whom she ran away to Mexico, who later committed suicide in prison) who has unwisely taken a job as a nanny for the precocious daughter of a childhood “frenemy”. Unlike Marie, Ellen is capable of regret, and recrimination, though not of forgiveness for wrongs, real and imagined, that the former inflicted on the latter as they grew up. Mutual contempt is never the foundation for a trusting business relationship, is it, even when there isn’t an adorable toddler, Caitlin (the real love of Marie’s life) and an attractive French husband (who happens to be the author of Marie’s very favorite novel, which she read over and over again in prison)?
It would be easy to regard the narrative that spins out from this initial conflict as a trashy, guilty-pleasure read, an unappreciated nanny’s vindictive fantasy come to life — for of course, when Marie leaves, she takes husband and toddler with her. But this is Bad Marie: the husband turns out to be a dud, and the toddler soon becomes a burden as Marie struggles to survive on what she managed to save up from her salary and steal from Ellen, in a foreign country after the husband abandons her. As squalid — and, at terms, weirdly glamorous — as Marie’s adventure becomes, though, she never stoops to abandoning the child she loves, and who loves her back, a child so detached from her busy, career-obsessed mother that she only occasionally asks “Where is Mommy?” and is immediately satisfied to learn that “She is at work.” And all the while, all that will, all that determination, all that marshalling of resources of which Marie is capable, is bent in the service of keeping this little girl well and happy. Not bad for a woman who is generally more concerned with objects — a red silk kimono, a set of silver bangles, a green glass rabbit, a well-stocked refrigerator, a claw-foot bathtub — than with people.
And yet ultimately, as the real precariousness of her situation becomes known, as Marie learns that even her understanding of her relationship with her original outlaw boyfriend may not be as she saw it, she is a sympathetic character, luckless, friendless, hopeless. “Marie had been caught every time, for everything she had ever done wrong in her life. There was nothing, Marie thought, watching Caitlin drinking her milk, that she could do right.” Yet even then, she has love for Caitlin and a kind of charity for those who blame her, rightly or wrongly, for their misfortunes.
How this never manages to feel forced or over-the-top is a bit of a mystery to me. Yet in the end it’s quite possibly the single most moving book I’ve read yet this year, and a genuine love story.
“Hi Marie.” “Hi Kit Kat.” “Hi Marie.” “Hi Caty Bean.”
Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky (Harper Perennial) is Kate’s seventhth book in the 100 Books in A Year reading challenge. More information can be found on her blog: Kate of Mind.